Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Topography of the Heart (Part 2)

Poet Henry Reed spent part of 1963-64 at the University of Washington as a visiting poet-in-residence, and seemed immediately to take to the light teaching load and the English Department ways (comical pissing-and-moaning was just his way of dealing with daily existence!)--so well that he was brought back off and on till 1967 in professor/lecturer capacities, with one full year as a Visiting Professor.

I graduated in English Lit in the summer of 1964 but went straight on for a Master's, from 1964-66, so I was present during his time at the U.W., first as one of his many students and then as a Teaching Assistant in the Department, herding my own groups of kids through Freshman English and helping a couple of literature professors, including Henry, as an assistant reading poems and papers, administering tests, whatever was asked.

I remember him having us read poets like Yeats and Eliot and Marvell and then try our hand at certain forms or styles. My poor specimens somehow passed muster, however, and we quickly became something more than teacher and student, albeit less than close friends. Usually Henry kept company with or was hosted by the big guns in the Department like Robert Heilman, Arnold Stein, and William Matchett, and Dorothee Bowie, who was much more than the English Department's nominal secretary. But he was especially happy when Elizabeth Bishop came in for a few weeks; the two outsider poets saw a great deal of each other for a too-brief time. (Thanks to Henry, I was invited to meet and have tea with Miss Bishop, a cherished memory still.) He went regularly to the Seattle Opera too and dragged me along once--can't remember what we saw but, then, opera was wasted on me in those days(mostly now as well).

Henry's Seattle time was actually lived in irregular pieces, with him going back to England for a few months and then reappearing at the U.W. for another temporarily-funded teaching stint. We corresponded during those absences of course, and I still have six or eight of his warm and gossipy, carefully handwritten letters, complete with witty emendations added here and there.

And somewhere along the line, when our second child was born in 1967, my then-wife Sharon and I asked "Henny" (that's what our toddler son Glenn called him) to be godfather to Krista; he gulped, I expect, but generously accepted the charge. A Master's was all I could afford to pursue by then--with two children and an at-home wife--but I stayed on working at the University Relations Office till late 1967, by which time Henry had returned to England from his final Seattle stay.

He resumed his life as highly regarded BBC writer and translator of (mostly Italian) literature, and he began drinking heavily. He had tippled routinely over here, but the work regimen kept him upright and prepared, most of the time. I believe that Henry knew he had been blessed and damned with a certain limited success--known for a few poems, but better known and regularly paid as a radio playwright, the writing of which drained his creative energy for the rigorous craft of poetry.

Our letters slowly trickled to a halt, though he did manage to inquire after Krista and send her a small gift each Christmas for the first few years. When I finally got over to England twice in the late Seventies and early Eighties, he wouldn't allow me to visit, nor would he come out for a meal or even a drink. I was experiencing in a small way what all of his friends had come to know: Henry had become reclusive and drink-sodden, with his health dwindling away and no one allowed to interfere with his slide. He died in 1986.

Five years later, English poet Jon Stallworthy assembled a Collected Poems, which took Henry's one full book A Map of Verona and his Lessons of the War chapbook and added all the other singly-printed pieces from his later years as well as some unpublished works. (This book has just been republished in a paperback edition available from Carcanet Press in England.) A handful of those poems do show him at his best including a long dramatic monologue titled "The Auction."

Critic Frank Kermode reviewed the book in The London Review and, in passing, wrote a decent capsule assessment of Henry Reed the man: "He was gentle, melancholy and funny, and without conscious effort gave one a strong sense of his unaffected dedication to poetry, not least to Italian poetry; and also tacitly but powerfully, a sense that his life, though marked by a great deal of idiosyncratic achievement, was radically disappointing..."--to the world of literature and to Henry himself.

Henry's poem "Unarmed Combat" ends with some words akin to his own epitaph:

"... so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought."

He left me a better poet, maybe a better man for having known him. As well as a taste for good wine, he also gave then-wife and me a splendid little "inner landscape" painting by local artist Wes Wehr, inscribed on the back "To my dear Ed & Sharon with three years' love, Henry." And he left me too his six-volume boxed set of The London Shakespeare, a 1957 edition of the complete plays, bought not because he was teaching Shakespeare but just to have at hand during his days and nights in Seattle.

"Every serious poet needs to read Shakespeare," Henry remarked to me once, "for a repeated lesson in humility."

((For an astonishing, near-complete examination of Reed's life and work--scholarly but fun as well--see the Reeding Lessons blog I have bookmarked way down below. And thanks to its dedicated host "steef" for awakening old memories!))

Friday, October 26, 2007

Henry Reed in Seattle (Part 1)

English Poet Henry Reed (1914-1986) was my mentor for a time and, in the early years anyway, godfather to my daughter Krista. Here's how those unlikely connections came about...

Major American poet and difficult man Theodore (Ted) Roethke was the key figure in the creative writing wing of the University of Washington's English Department. He had been poet-in-residence for many years, with "younger" poets as diverse as Richard Hugo and James Wright, David Wagoner and Nelson and Beth Bentley, as his students and then colleagues. I had started college at Northwestern University, but the costs proved prohibitive, so I transferred to the U.W., in part hoping to study with Roethke if accepted.

In the spring of my junior year 1963, I accosted the big bear of a man in the halls one day, saying I hoped to take his class in writing. He growled a response of sorts, "See me Fall," and lumbered off. That seasonal reference became an ironic pun when Roethke died in his swimming pool over the summer, but from a stopped heart (I think) rather than from drowning.

The English Department suddenly had to scramble to fill some very large shoes. Over the next couple of years, guest poets came to teach for a quarter or a year, or simply to read/lecture briefly--we were treated to John Logan, Robert Lowell, Vernon Watkins, Elizabeth Bishop... and Henry Reed. (Already on campus, David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer quickly assumed more important roles in the Department as well.) I was a full-fledged English major by then, and a smalltime fledgling poet, so I took courses from some of them as I moved on into the Master's Degree program. (I was a Teaching Assistant and also became the Assistant Editor, meaning submissions reader, to headperson Carolyn Kizer at the well-known U.W.-sponsored literary magazine Poetry Northwest.)

Memory says, for example, that I studied with Logan, took tea with Bishop, and became T.A. to Reed. We hit it off immediately--he the cultured English gentleman with slightly fey manner (I guess he was gay as we would say now, but I believe he was also more Capote-asexual than active), and me a married grad student with one son already and a second child on the way. I helped Henry in a couple of his teaching assignments, and he immediately became part of our family; we'd have him to dinner on the rare occasion, and he would regularly entertain my wife and me in fine restaurants around Seattle, always searching for the best (but affordable) wines on the menu. I remember him routinely asking for Puligny Montrachet and then settling for Pouilly Fuisse, back in the days when neither was commonly found in the Northwest (our honored vineyards and winemakers were still some years away).

Reed was a man of letters in the old patrician manner; he wrote poems, essays and reviews, and BBC radio plays, and translated many other stage plays, from mostly Italian authors. He had become literarily famous for two things. One was his poem called "Chard Whitlow," which was a spot-on parody of the T.S. Eliot of Four Quartets fame. Many amusing quotable lines occur in Reed's poem, but I recall most (too often these days) his Eliotic mantra, "As we get older, we do not get any younger..."

But really Henry was best known for a single poem, plus the sequels or partner poems that accompanied it later: "Naming of Parts" from his sequence titled Lessons of the War. In this poem, a daydreaming WWII recruit half listens to his sergeant discuss the pieces of a disassembled rifle, conflating the military words into images of the Spring season outside, which slyly become more sexual as the poem progresses:

... And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got...

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring...

"Naming of Parts" quickly became known as THE single most important poem written by a WWII soldier, as Reed was briefly. The First War had produced many poets and great poems, but the Second seemed not to lead to poetry. However, Reed's success did soon lead to subsequent, er, parts titled "Judging Distances," "Movement of Bodies," "Unarmed Combat," and--much later--"Psychological Warfare" (not as painstakingly wrought as the others) and "Returning of Issue." These were fine and sometimes funny, but none was as astonishing as the original poem.

At any rate, Reed became a regular at the BBC, writing wonderful comic plays to be broadcast over the radio, and that's how he made most of his steady income, until called to Seattle to teach recalcitrant American kids how to create poetry.

((The rest of the story to come in a few days in my next blog chapter.))

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Love's Old Sweet Song

Speaking of failed first marriages and much happier second ones--as I sort of was last time around--reminds me that I've been waiting for a "right" moment to post my Hegelian trio of marriage poems, built around one ending and another starting. So why not today? Think of these as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; as the song says, Love is friendlier the second time around...

My Vasectomy Comes of Age

Lengthy marriages acquire an Oriental cast:
Each that isn’t Mao’s Long March,
A triumph of revolutionary principles,
Becomes instead the walk across Bataan,
With every decent impulse abandoned or dead.
I left all sperm somewhere along that road—
Marriage itself later—dying
To do my part for the regiment of populations.

On hospital TV sets, the vid of my X-
Rated operation proved a hit, the first “how to”
In ball-shaving and vas-snipping.
Blessed with worryless sex ever since,
A model citizen of that threatened state, I’ve yet
Fumbled through seventy-seven hundred nights of dread…
At worst, unmanned; at best, more vague and less
Ambitious. Or was that “the vasectomy in the skull”?

Whenever my testicles ache now, I wonder
What mutant elements coil there,
Waiting. Whoever persuaded me
That two children could be enough
Was never a father. Year after year I absorb
My own unborn, the hairs on my head grow
Scarcer, each new poem swims in grief,
Going nowhere fast.

What scrutably comes of age is this despair.

In Defense of Flat Chocolate Wedding Cakes

Any time, love is a nervous condition.

On the sunwheel plaza high up each
pyramid of the Valley of the Sun,
Aztec priests got right to the heart
of the matter: the Cakes of Heaven
are seldom a body’s bread.

Nor should the hopeful couple approve
some half-baked cylinder shaped
like Chichen Itza’s Well of Maiden Sacrifice.
(Not that far removed, politically speaking.)
Imagine the usual sugary concoction,

small man atop clearly in reduced circumstances,

and the tiny woman, had she but tongue
to vent her anguish, shrieking like the Sidhe.
Neither would choose to live in such
a triple-tiered suite of dubious taste…
Let other weddings take the cake for show

biz. Our “I do’s” will not be
symbolically or otherwise consumed
at the Drive-in Chapel of Confectioners’ Dreams.
Marriage can be short and dark and give
you several raspberries. Chew on this

to remember our cock-eyed optimism.

Prime Numbers

As one into two goes two,

You into me into you
Makes two ones joined together,

Equivalent forever:

A number greater than one
That yet transcends two alone.

Subtract either one of us,

The sum is the same, but less,
No better than a fraction,

One requiring correction.

Still, when rightly multiplied,
One times one won’t be denied.

Divide us by space or time,

Our total will remain prime
No matter where we two are,

Our unity rooted square.

Whether counted one or two—
You/me paired, or me-plus-you—

When the math of love is done,

Two into two exceeds none;
One over one becomes one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pilgrim's Palate

Back in the 1930's, three lads, sons of Italian immigrants residing in Washington State, got to be pals when all made it into law school at the same time; and the three then made a further pact...

That's the story, anyway, that one of them in the early 1960's used to tell his University of Washington English Department classes; the tale-teller was Angelo Pellegrini, a well-known gourmet and food critic, Shakespeare specialist, and by then non-practicing lawyer. He called it "Rosellini, Rosellini, and Pellegrini," and he regaled us students with such anecdotes along with his brilliant, Machiavellian-grin recitations of Macbeth, Iago, and Lear.

Back in their law school days, it seems, the three guys vowed that, someday, Al would rise to the governorship of Washington, Hugh would become Chief Justice of its State Supreme Court... and then Angelo would be appointed President of the U.W. "Sure enough," Angelo would say, "in the Fifties, Al was elected governor, Hugh was selected to head the Court, and..." He'd pause and smile his mischievous and slightly feral smile, then say, "And I kept waiting for the phone to ring. But the call never came."

Oh well. Administration's loss was the English Department's gain. Dr. Pellegrini (doctor of Law rather than of Liberal Arts; oh, and his Italian surname means "pilgrim") was known instead as a maverick professor, spending less time on interpreting Will and more on requiring his students to memorize and sometimes recite in class the 17th Century English iambics. Many hated this approach, but I loved it--had no trouble remembering the Bard's words, during classes or final tests. (I felt more connected to Shakespeare then than at any time before or since.) And because I could spout on demand, I became one of Pellegrini's proteges, I guess--sufficiently so that when I was getting married a couple of years later (a low-key, base-chapel affair with both sets of parents gone overseas, no friends in attendance, and no honeymoon pending), I asked Angelo to help me choose a restaurant and menu for the two-people-only wedding dinner.

He told me not to worry, he'd arrange a fine meal for us at Rosellini's 410 (Victor representing another branch of that family, I suppose), which was usually thought of as Seattle's premier restaurant back then. And sure enough, we dined perfectly that night, surrounded by elegant trappings and delectable food, including a bottle of Pellegrini's own handmade wine, the gift of which was a much bigger deal than I knew then. (I said he was a food expert; really he was an internationally known one, espousing eating fresh local foods and maintaining family herb gardens and making one's own wine and so on, a Fifties critic of America's move to pre-packaged foods and an early proponent of what's known now as the "Slow Food Movement." He wrote a handful of books too, the best known of which was/is his classic philosophy-of-food volume titled The Unprejudiced Palate.) Angelo helped launch that first marriage well...

I left academia and became a writer, lost touch with the professor. But ten years later, figuring "nothing ventured...," I called him up and asked if he would make the arrangements for our tenth anniversary dinner, back again at the 410. He remembered me well enough cheerfully to agree. But this time, things went sadly wrong; the trappings of the aging restaurant didn't seem as posh and then-wife got food poisoning from some shellfish--should have realized it was an omen for the unfriendly split ahead!--nothing for which Dr. Pellegrini bore any blame, of course. He lived on till age 90 or so and is still revered in serious food circles today.

Meanwhile, though I never did meet Chief Justice Hugh, I did once interview retired Governor Al, for a story on the do-nothing State Legislature. Al was in his Seventies by then and had a set of dentures that he clacked regularly when speaking, jerking his head back to make his plate of teeth click into place again! Those loud clacks, which he seemed totally oblivious to, made for a very disconcerting hour as I struggled to take notes and not laugh out loud. And I did think of the professor, by then most renowned of the three, who was still eating well with his own rather pointy teeth...

That's my version of the tale of Pellegrini and a couple of Rosellinis.

Friday, October 12, 2007

How I Spent My Autumn Vacation

Sandie and I returned on October 9th from our mad-dash, whirlwind tour of New England, ranging the rocky coasts and the Green/White Mountains, on the trail of red lobsters and reddening leaves.

We flew in to JFK, which was handy to our starting point--meaning eastern Long Island, the North Fork rather than the Hamptons, where my wife spent many summers as a girl, growing up among loving relatives of several generations, and where a few still reside today. Two nights and a day there, getting a lazy start (reminiscing with the kinfolk and revisiting her old haunts in our rented car), and then we were off, first by ferry to New London, and then driving on through Mystic, Conn., past Newport, R.I., hustling on to Cape Cod, Mass., for two nights.

The sightseeing day in-between took us from Provincetown, up-Cape, which was surprisingly quiet and somewhat chilly on the morning we visited (with scarcely an arty character to be seen), down through Truro and Wellfleet and Eastham; did find a fine gallery along the way specializing in the work of Cape artists and children's illustrators like Tomie de Paola, where I bought a major catalog-quasi-raisonne devoted to Leonard Baskin and Gehenna Press. We finished up the tour further around the Cape's "Elbow" in Yarmouth at the Eighties home of the late, but weird and wonderful, modern-day-Victorian Edward Gorey. The house, the fat cat meandering inside, the original illustrations displayed in all rooms (particularly various versions of Gorey's famous book The Doubtful Guest), even the man and woman hosting and overseeing the place, were all perfectly VicGoreyan themselves!

The next day took us quickly on up the Massachusetts coast (no Boston this trip) to Newburyport, which was amazingly lovely for an old seaport--wide streets, inner-harbor parks (not to mention free parking), grand old brick buildings and small-scale mansions everywhere, including the old Clark Currier Inn we stayed in overnight.

Then came Maine, the best part of the trip in my estimation. We slept two nights at Boothbay in a lovely harbor-view b&b called The Admiral's Quarters, and had a most excellent day in between visiting Rockland and the handsome, sea-shaped Pemaquid Peninsula and environs. Rockland hosts the small but world-class Farnsworth Museum, home of Maine artists galore--Rockwell Kent to George Bellows, Marsden Hartley to John Marin, Louise Nevelson to early Edward Hopper, but most especially the several generations of Wyeths. Scores of originals by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie, and a few other offshoots as well.

We marveled at originals from the Scribner books N.C. illustrated as well as a most uncommon Maine seascape he painted that shows the clear influence of Picasso and Russian prismatic Modernism. N.C.'s son and his son were wonderfully present too; the main show celebrated "Andrew Wyeth at 90," and clearly he is still going strong. Andrew's watercolors and drybrush and tempura paintings are still rather bleached-out and sometimes slightly edgy, while Jamie exhibits much more color and even humor in his subject matter. But all are remarkable.

After that we drove out to the actual and fragile farmhouse owned by the no-longer-living Olsens, Christina and Alvaro, made famous by Andrew's painting of Christina's World and many others. An amazing spot and a truly haunted, moving experience...

And then we lucked onto a Maine country store partly devoted to Wyeth family prints in vast numbers, where we spent a couple of hours marvelling and circling back and forth, and finally plopped down too much money to take away a few favorites for framing back home.

The rest of the trip actually proved a bit anticlimactic. We drove inland from Maine up into New Hampshire for a night and then over the Kankamagus Highway into Vermont for two more. Sadly, the leaves this year are slow to turn, due to a particularly dry summer that left the trees deprived of much-needed moisture. We saw lovely part-reds and other looked-for tints here and there, but the typical explosions of God's full palette of colors were absent, and maybe not coming this year at all.

The inns and b&bs everywhere fed and housed us well, the people were friendly and the meals were overwhelming and generally excellent, but Sandie and I were gradually tiring, wearing down from so much driving and looking and dining out... (Never thought I'd admit to that!) And the "Leaf Season" prices did prove hugely daunting.

Still, we had miles to go before we slept... In the latter days we visited Vermont-quaint towns, enjoyed rolling farmlands and architecturally historic buildings, saw old-time mills and new-fangled Ben & Jerry's machines pumping out the pints, dashed southward to catch a bit of the Berkshires, took quick ganders at Jacob's Pillow Dance and Tanglewood Music expanses, spent a cheery hour at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, moved on into the Hudson Valley to marvel at the Vanderbilt and Franklin Roosevelt and other New York mansions (but not the too-popular Rockefeller, sold out ahead of our visit)...

And finally crashed for a last, nearly elegant night in White Plains, Westchester County, at Soundview Manor, a private home gradually being turned into an inn by our hostess Doris, resident owner for almost 30 years and a feminist lawyer of the Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem generation, who regaled us with slightly confusing stories of those major movement days and the dwindling present. (Doris's daughter was recently jailed for six months by the Bush-league Justice Department for questioning, somehow, Alberto Gonzalez's authority.)

Then we hung out in Airportland awaiting our flight home--which actually took off on time and flew faster than expected, landing at Sea-Tac 15 minutes early! The pilot announced our ahead-of-time arrival and asked all us passengers to remember the event fondly the next time we flew and, unstated but implied, faced the usual delays and cattle-car treatment of airline travel today.

So a good (but expensive) time was had by, er, both of us. Yet there's no place like this home, on our funky island in the mild-climate, book-reading, arts-friendly, socially-progressive, anti-Bush world of Western Washington. Only Maine could tempt me East again.