Cassity, (Allen) Turner 1929-
CASSITY, (Allen) Turner 1929-
PERSONAL: Born January 12, 1929, in Jackson, MS; son of Allen Davenport and Dorothy (Turner) Cassity. Ethnicity: "White." Education: Millsaps College, B.A., 1951; Stanford University, M.A., 1952; Columbia University, M.S., 1956. Politics: "If Ralph Nader is for it, I am against it; otherwise, as apolitical as possible." Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Opera.
ADDRESSES: Home—510 East Ponce de Leon Ave., Apt. J, Decatur, GA 30030-1971.
CAREER: Jackson Municipal Library, Jackson, MS, assistant librarian, 1957-58; Transvaal Provincial Library, Pretoria, South Africa, assistant librarian, 1959-61; Emory University Library, Atlanta, GA, chief of serials and binding department, 1962—. Military service: U.S. Army, 1952-54.
AWARDS, HONORS: Blumenthal-Leviton-Blonder Prize for poetry, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts Grant, 1980; Ingram Merrill Foundation Award,
1991; Michael Braude Award for light verse, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993; honorary doctorate of humane letters, Millsaps College, 2003.
Watchboy, What of the Night? (poetry), Wesleyan University Press, 1966.
Steeplejacks in Babel (poetry), Godine (Boston, MA), 1973.
Silver Out of Shanghi: A Scenario for Josef von Sternberg, Featuring Wicked Nobles, a Depraved Religious Wayfoong, Princess Ida, the China Clipper, and Resurrection Lily, with a Supporting Cast of Old Hands, Merchant Seamen, Sikhs, Imperial Marines, and Persons in Blue (poetry), Planet Mongo Press (Atlanta, GA), 1973.
Yellow for Peril, Black for Beautiful: Poems and aPlay, Braziller (New York, NY), 1975.
The Defense of the Sugar Islands: A Recruiting Post, Symposium Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1979.
Hurricane Lamp, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1986.
(With R. L. Barth) Lessons, Para Press, 1987.
(With R. L. Barth and Warren Hope) Mainstreaming:Poems of Military Life, drawings by Todd Price, self-published, 1988.
Between the Chains, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1998.
No Second Eden: Poems, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 2002.
Contributor of poems to Poetry, Kenyon Review, and other publications.
SIDELIGHTS: Turner Cassity's poetry is renowned for its satiric humor and tight structure. His subject matter is nearly always human nature, frequently within the context of cultural and political tragedy—"human folly at its most grotesque extremes," according to Keith Tuma in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. His humor has served as a sort of contradiction to his subject matter, according to Robert Huddleston of the Chicago Review, who described Cassity's world view as "exotically formalist, passionately skeptical, [and] dedicatedly agnostic." In a review of the collection No Second Eden, Prairie Schooner writer Moore Moran noted that "the poems teem with the satirical prickle that has become a Cassity trademark," and Booklist contributor Ray Olson called Cassity "a national treasure."
"His is an art by exclusion; his poems are what remains after the completion of a rigorous economizing exercise," Richard Johnson observed in Parnassus. Writing in the Sewanee Review, Paul Ramsey described the verse of Cassity's early publication Steeplejacks in Babel as "traditional in meter, tight yet ragged," while Southern Review critic Francis Golfing believed the poems of Yellow for Peril, Black for Beautiful "bring to mind the surrealistic acrobatics of Cocteau or Picabia." Jerome J. McGann deemed Cassity a "limited poet," but noted in Poetry that "he recognizes perfectly what his words and lines can do, and he performs candidly within his range."
Cassity received much critical praise for The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, a collection that includes works dating as far back as the 1960s. By viewing his career in retrospect, wrote Huddleston, readers are able to "get a synoptic idea of his stylistic development as a writer and the thematic concerns that surface and resurface over time." Reviewers noted the prevalence of Cassity's humor based on the poems' titles alone, which include "Let My People Go, but Not without Severance Pay," "Never Use a Stock Ticker without a Geiger Counter," and "Vegetarian Mary and the Venus Flytrap." Contrasting with this humor is Cassity's tight style. "If these wonderfully idiosyncratic and cranky poems have failed to appeal to the widest audience," wrote David Yezzi in Poetry, "this is chiefly because they run counter to current taste in many ways. Readers accustomed to dewy symbolism, surrealism, or image-rich and 'emotionally available' free verse will find instead hard-bitten formalism and querulously clipped syntax." Nevertheless, concluded Yezzi, "his humor and understanding are the greater parts of compassion."
Turner Cassity contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A LITTLE OF MYSELF
How does one become what one is? Not, surely, by way of childhood, in spite of what genetics, psychology, and economics may suggest. I find it difficult to believe that experienced adults can regard childhood as sufficiently interesting to describe as happy or unhappy. The temptation for me is to deal with it as Mrs. Wharton dealt with divorce (hers; not others')—to treat it as something hardly worthy of mention.
I did the things most small boys do, but I suspect I found them less satisfying than most small boys do. If you ask what was lacking all I can say is that Forest, Mississippi, population 2,500, had no architecture as I understood architecture from futuristic comics and the covers of Popular Mechanics. Nor was the landscape in any way satisfactory. To an eye conditioned by the other planets of the airbrush, the low hills and the forests of second-growth pine appeared featureless. I may add that they do still. Scenery begins at Shreveport.
Fortunately, there were gravel pits in the area, and these were settings of more appeal, having the glamour of deserts without their alarming distances, and the mystery of caverns without the darkness and the claustrophobia. My contemporaries and I would have thought it an absolute failure of the imagination to play in a park, let alone a playground. As a matter of principle I vote against bond issues for the construction of these instruments of regimentation. Let them have gravel.
Persons tended to be more satisfactory, the nature of the local gene pool being such that many looked acceptably like illustrations. Also, if the scenario of the day—Tarzan, for example—made vegetation inevitable, there were chinaberry trees, commonplace, but tropically exotic, and with low branches accessible to the least intrepid. To be avoided in blossom, of course, as the tiny lavender flowers, a definition of cheap perfume, attract insects in number and variety frightening even for Mississippi. By early summer, however, the berries themselves have clustered, hard and green, and lethal pellets for slingshots. Chinaberry wars raged over entire neighborhoods. I wonder all of us did not grow up blind. It was not air rifles which were the peril. At the end of the summer such of the berries as had not become missiles turned into a pulpy amber and fell to the ground, there to ferment and attract other insects, or to make the chickens drunk. A staggering rooster is less Disney-like than macabre. I had a book of Russian fairy tales centering on one Baba Yaga, who lived in the forest in a hut raised on four chicken legs. I always thought of her when I saw one of those intemperate birds, who seemed as sinister as the folkloric witch. The only Russian chicken folk art I care for is that of Fabergé, not for reasons of reaction but because his eggs look to me like models of nineteenth-century spaceships.
Pine trees were for lumber. My family on both sides were sawmill people for generations—longleaf yellow pine—and I can still hear the resinously oozing contempt with which they would pronounce "plywood." Pulpwood, like Teddy Wharton, was not even to be spoken of. It was an industry peopled by the cast of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A real sawmill had six high smokestacks, elaborately guyed, and, smoking like Battleship Row in the Pearl Harbor newsreels, rose at the center of a great complex of planing mills, dry kilns, conveyors, scrap heaps, sawdust piles, millpond, and lumberyards, the smell of which is irresistible to me at this moment. At the whiff of a sawmill I will take the extreme measure of turning off the air-conditioning, rolling down the windows, and leaving the interstate.
My father's mother's family were cabinetmakers in Texarkana before the Civil War. During the war they evaded conscription and profiteered by turning their talents and their equipment to the manufacture of gun stocks. By the 1880s they controlled the means of production and were sawmilling in Louisiana, first in Webster and later in Bienville Parish. In 1915, in a reenactment of the Great Trek, or the remove of Father Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, they relocated in Mississippi, carrying with them cattle, servants, pets, household goods, and the machinery of the mill itself. The company cut out in 1929, the year I was born, but
there was some thought of yet another move, to Flagstaff, Arizona. Now there is a landscape one could have related to. Lowell Observatory is just outside town, and Meteor Crater, the ultimate gravel pit, is fifty miles away.
My great-grandfather Cassity, who did fight in the Civil War, was so unreconstructable that he afterwards joined Quantrill's Raiders. The story in the family is that he quarrelled with Quantrill over the killing of Yankees. Whether killing too many or killing too few is not certain. He then fled, depending on which story you accept, to Panama or to Nicaragua. I should like to think of him as filibustering with Walker or wallowing in the corruption of the Cornpagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, but the chronology does not quite work out in either case. He spoke a little French, but it was Cajun, not De Lesseps's. He may well have been working for the Panama Railroad. Whatever he was doing I have no doubt that he was Hell on wheels, because the strain keeps surfacing in his descendants, one of whom was deputy-sheriff of Caddo Parish under Huey Long. There is also the achieving strain, represented by yours truly, and by Bert Jones, former quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams. But the adventurer lost his wife and young family to yellow fever and returned to the States to become a minister of the Gospel, beginning a second family, to which my grandfather belonged, and, presently, a third. Curiously, I am the last to bear the name, although, like all proper Southerners, I have many cousins.
My father's mother, who was badly crippled by arthritis, had notions about plant life as idiosyncratic as mine. She took great pleasure in gardening—well, in the gardening of her yard boys—but for her it was a morality play. Some flowers were more worthy than others, and their worth was more or less in direct proportion to the difficulty in raising them. A "volunteer," a plant that came up on its own, brought out the intonation reserved elsewhere for plywood. Tropical varieties were suspect, by reason both of their profusion and their vividness. Pallid English standards were best, although even hybrid tea roses had to answer for their lack of smell, a stricture with which I fully concur. Cannas counted as tropical, and, worse, brightened without effort the hovels of cooks and washwomen. Gardenias, before the days of embalming, were for funerals, not as ornaments but as necessities. When anyone dies, telephone the funeral home and be thankful that it is there.
Gardening was not my grandmother's only interest. The phrase was not available to her, but she could have drawn a flowchart of what happens to a log from the moment it leaves the forest, i.e., the stand of timber, until it is sold off the yard as lumber, and so could her sisters. Carriages and skidders and dummy engines were as familiar to them as embroidery hoops and crochet needles, and, I suspect, more interesting, as well they might be.
For the other side of the family, "lukewarm" elicited the tone of quiet reduction to powder that "volunteer" did in reference to the botanical moralities. I was ten years old before I realized the word referred to temperature. My great-aunts used it to describe families who had been less-than-passionate Confederates. In the kitchen or in the bath the term was tepid, and, in a climate like Mississippi, praise. One did not fail to notice that the lukewarm tended to have more money than the deeply committed, an observation that I have elevated into a principle. Where would I be if the cabinetmakers had not been lukewarm; and I am smug in the knowledge that at least one ingeniously tepid family hid its cotton bales in a gravel pit.
Neither side of the family escaped the Confederate curse of nicknaming and diminutives. God help genealogists who have to figure out that Abby was Albert and Moddy was Martha. I had a cousin Tincy who was very tall and have one a decade older than I am who is still Turner-Boy. Better him than me, but I blush to say that I myself as an infant was responsible for such horrors as Sue-Sue (Mary Sue) and Wo-Wo (Ora). Why did no one slap me. Nor were the Black folks guiltless. The washwoman of choice, anything but little, was Bo-Peep.
Elementary-school teachers in those days imparted facts and took no nonsense. To their great credit, they usually required even that we use the names we were christened with, creating identity crises in first grade. I doubt that all of those Bitsies and Tippies and Pee-Wees and Hoppies know who they are yet. Hoppy (Hopalong) perhaps does. He is I.
Excellent as my teachers were, my Sunday-school teachers were better. I intend it as praise when I say that they made the Old Testament seem a continuum with the adventure strips, nor was it lost on me that the Gustave Doré illustrations were in the same continuum. I was a very sharp-eyed little boy, for matters that held interest for me. I still cannot tell an oak tree from an elm. Hardwoods, you know. I knew at once, though, that without Doré the landscape of other planets was unthinkable.
Although the Sunday school was Presbyterian, original sin and total depravity were not stressed. The assumption was that if you had any sense and kept your eyes open you could hardly fail to arrive at Calvin's conclusions. I did not respond as readily to the New Testament as to the Old, and I hope I do not slander my teachers when I say it was obvious they did not. N.T. cities and plains are on a much smaller scale, and many of its characters do seem the most terrible busybodies. I intend no praise when I say they remind me of Jimmy Carter. The White South used to put a very high value on minding one's own business.
I did enjoy the book of Revelation, but only because so much of it is devoted to architecture (Philip Johnson obviously reads it), and to air-traffic control for the squadrons of angels. I have written three poems on the Tower of Babel and may write three more. If Mr. Johnson can keep building it I can keep writing about it. I suppose my favorite passage in the Bible is Elijah going at the Prophets of Baal: "Call him louder. Perchance he sleepeth, or is on a journey." That is a man who could have dealt with the Ayatollah.
Denominations existed, but were uniformly Protestant. A Catholic student in my elementary school would have been as outrageous as the Whore of Babylon on the courthouse square in a feather boa. In the fifth grade one did appear. Any new student was an event, and this one was apocalyptic. We knew that Catholics fasted during Lent, and kept waiting for her to faint from hunger. She was in fact very thin. The interesting thing would be to know how we dated the onset of Lent, as not even the churches, let alone the schools, observed Good Friday, much less Ash Wednesday. That would have been rank papism.
The Presbyterian church, as a structure, would have been stark in Scotland, but the constraints were financial, not liturgical. Nothing constrained the psychological identification of Miss Mattie Christian (Mrs., actually) with the Prophet Isaiah, or the grandeur she brought to Joshua halting the sun on its course. The myth of Phäethon is a poor substitute.
It is traditional in literary autobiography to enumerate one's childhood reading. I am surprised that writers are so willing to tip their hands, but as I have already tipped mine I might as well come out and say that I chose books for their illustrations. I read the first two books of Paradise Lost, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, exactly as one would read any other science fiction. You will guess who the artist was. Even he could not get me through The Divine Comedy, though he managed to make London poverty more interesting than ever Dickens did. At this moment I would not read David Copperfield if you went macho and held a shotgun to my head. In a long career, Edgar Rice Burroughs outlived as many illustrators as he did apemen, without ever getting what he really needed, which is Leni Riefenstahl. Burne Hogarth, who drew the newspaper panels, fatally suggests William Blake, and Johnny Weismuller suggested not sleeping in the crotches of trees so much as sleeping off hangovers in the crotches of trees. Where were you, Indiana Jones, when Edgar needed you?
My favorite reading was description of A Century of Progress, which closed two years before I was literate. At the age of fifty-nine, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, I saw an exhibit that included Joseph Urban's original designs for the fair. The only comparable experience, except for the one I shall relate at the end of this essay, was discovering Rider Haggard when I was well past thirty. Like Kipling, he is the rare writer good enough not to benefit from illustration. I read Jules Verne, enjoying the Victoriana more than the wave of the future; I read Victor Hugo, even unto Toilers of the Sea. The great set piece about quicksand was highly relevant to those of us in swampy Mississippi. I would no more have read a children's book than I would have played in a playground. Tenniel attracted me to Alice in Wonderland, but after a few pages I found myself substituting Annie, Punjab, and the Asp for the Carroll figures, to the great improvement of the story. Well, Richard Strauss said once that he could conduct a Beethoven symphony only if he made up a program to go along with it (and wouldn't one like to know what those programs were). If I were filming either Alice or Peter Pan, or, for that matter, David Copperfield, I should place the setting in the Raj. England is a country whose relentless pastoralism deeply estranges me.
"He has too much imagination" was, except for lukewarm, the ultimate put-down, and I imagine it was said behind my back as often as to my face. The South had, and has, none, which is why I spend a great deal of time in California, and would love to spend more.
My mother and her mother were musicians in silent-movie theatres. The more film courses universities offer the less people know about the silent screen. I should like to be able to give you, as a document, my mother's reminiscences, but as she dislikes the tape recorder as much as the audio equipment of original offense, this will not be possible. Students will know that the New York Roxy employed an orchestra (at one time Eugene Ormandy conducted it), and that in small towns the Saturday-afternoon serial had a piano accompaniment. The rest is silence, except, of course, it wasn't. Textbooks may mention that an extraordinary, i.e., road show, feature, like Thief of Baghdad, would have an original score composed for it. They will not mention that a studio sent out the parts in advance, along with the posters and lobby cards. Hollywood did not overestimate the ability of musicians
to sight-read. The score was cued to the subtitles. The present controversy over surtitles in the opera house is a nonissue.
Remember that before TV seduced away their audience theatres had continuous showings. Before the orchestra came on for the two evening performances, and the live entertainment between, there were four earlier showings that had to be got through. The box office opened at noon.
In a theatre of some pretension, a small orchestra covered the matinees, alternating with an organ, the two overlapping and phasing in and out in such a manner that the audience, imperceptive at the best of times, never knew the difference. In regard to repertory the musicians were on their own, and, I have no doubt, faked a lot. Mood was the important thing. I have in my possession an anthology—it was once the property of Alfred Lehman Engel—indexed by such subjects as nocturne, orgy, and suspense. The distinction between copyright and public domain must have been hazier then than now. The estate of Isaac Albeniz, without whom the Latin lovers could hardly have functioned, cannot have waived copyright. Either Spain or California was not signatory to the convention. The scores expressly composed called for "augmented orchestra," always advertised as such. The smallest house could get together a trio: piano, violin, flute.
Few works of art can hold up under the scrutiny of six showings a day, and this grandmother had many unkind things to say about the medium of her livelihood, especially about the sisters Gish. At the great console in the sky it must be a vexation to her that Lillian is simpering into her ninth decade. Mother's bète noire is Nita Naldi, who is dismissed as "greasy." When I finally saw Nita in Blood and Sand, at the Museum of Modern Art, I thought that she was rather sexy, but it may have been the Albeniz accompaniment.
Mother's career climaxed when, at a performance of the de Mille Ten Commandments, the theatre burned down around her. As the villainess in the film is Miss Naldi, I can see how she acquired unfortunate associations. Sooty, perhaps, as well as greasy. When, thirty years later, deMille remade The Ten Commandments as a sound film, I asked Mother if she was going to see it. "Not on your life," said she, feeling that, however colossal, it could only be an anticlimax. My own favorite among silent films is Sunset Boulevard. When it shows on late-night TV I turn off the sound.
I cannot abandon the thrall of silence without telling you that my father looked like Rudolph Valentino and my mother like Norma Talmadge. I look like Raymond Massey.
With the demise in rapid succession of the silent screen and of my father, Mother went to work for the Works Progress Administration. Scholars have dealt in detail with the Federal Theatre and the Federal Artists Projects, and in somewhat less detail with the Federal Writers Project. None, so far as I know, has taken on the Federal Music Project. Musicians being what they are, it would be the richest study of all, although of more interest, I daresay, to criminologists and psychiatrists than to sociologists.
The sociology was grim enough. The brothers Warner, over a period of hardly more than eighteen months, had put scores of thousands of instrumentalists on the streets. My grandmother maintained that sound would not last, a position she clung to until her death in 1934. Meanwhile, no Luddite, she took a job as sustaining pianist at a radio station. Keeping equally well ahead of the juggernaut of progress, my grandfather was building airfields. The radio station was WJDX in Jackson, the voice of the Lamar Life Insurance Company, founded by Eudora Welty's father, and for which Miss Welty wrote continuity. Technology was no more dependable then than now, and communication with the network frequently went dead. It was Grandmother and Franz Liszt to the rescue. That is what a sustaining pianist is, and I suggest that Dan Rather hire one.
The Federal Music Project, in Mississippi, was under the direction of a Miss Jerome Sage, who had been head of the music department at Mississippi State College for Women, otherwise MSCW, aka Messy W. She assembled an orchestra of twenty-five or thirty, which would give concerts at orphanages and junior high schools, as well as broadcasting. I am uncertain as to how matters were worked out with the Musicians' Union, of which my grandmother was one of the first female members in the South. The local chapter may simply have folded. I know for a fact that its funds were embezzled. "Unprincipled," my mother's word, describes musicians best. The project paid for rehearsals as well as for performances, and although the players, conscientious veterans of the pit, worked hard, the project also employed, at full salary, a timekeeper who, in the best WPA tradition, did nothing whatever. The musicians hated him. He could take a watch from his pocket more ostentatiously than the White Rabbit.
The repertory was purest potted palm, as were the venues of performance. In the Visconti Death in Venice there is a scene in which the Mahler on the sound track finally shuts up (it doesn't finish; Visconti just stops it) and there is only the little string orchestra of the hotel, playing the Lehár Viljalied. It is a wonderfully authentic and unglamorized moment, and transports me instantly to rehearsals in the school auditoriums and rented lofts of fifty years ago.
I frequently attended rehearsals, not because, in those days, latchkey kids were suspect—and I certainly was one—but because the musicians were such a spectacle. Unprincipled or not, they were without exception beautifully kind to me, and, although I have outlived them, were lifelong friends. I preferred to hang out among the string players, because they were not always emptying spit out of crooks and valves, and because when they rosined their bows the smell reminded me of a sawmill. If my presence on these occasions seems to conflict with what I have so far told you about myself, you have missed the point. If the orchestra pit is not another planet, nothing is.
At the concerts I formed my opinion, never softened, that orphans are very unpleasant people. In college it was an irritation to me that my fraternity was determined to give them an annual party. I found that their attention span was no better than it had been for In a Persian Market and that they were still incapable of not spilling punch on me. I took my revenge as I had earlier, by seating them in chairs cracked so that they pinched. No one enjoys the sufferings of Annie more than I do.
The latchkey spared me becoming Andy Hardy, and the time I spent in boardinghouses and rooming houses was by far the most instructive of my childhood. Only Balzac could do full justice to my landladies. To their meals I owe my excellent appetite and my excellent health; to their rooms I owe my indifference to interiors and my indifference to much else. To live in a house, with a yard, in a neighborhood, seems to me sensory deprivation.
With the coming of World War II the ladies entered their high period. Mrs. Daniels, who may well have been the wealthiest woman in Jackson, having owned the land on which Sears Roebuck stood, slept, I swear to you, in a pantry behind a screen, so she could rent out one more room. Any true thing I tell you about her will make her seem an ogress of greed, but as a matter of fact she was a pink, pretty, white-haired, very plump old lady who was kindness itself to the hopelessly unremarkable young people whom she housed. She ran a photography business in the basement, and not for one moment would I put her beyond trafficking in kiddy-porn, if the profit margin were sufficient. She had a likely subject in her seven-year-old grandson, whose favorite activity was to run up and down stark naked on the sidewalk in front of adjacent Saint Peter's rectory, pursued by an enormously fat nun. I encountered him years later as, what else, a lifeguard. The main purpose of the rooming house, I am sure, was to
launder money. Mrs. Daniels accepted payment only in cash. With widowhood she had given up a handsome house in a fashionable suburb to be, as we say, where the action is. She also owned, contiguous to the Sears property, a building she rented to a hat shop called La Mode. Its plumbing was undependable, and most of her day went into telephone conversations involving the commode at La Mode. I was reminded of the New York World's Fair of 1939, which boasted of "commodious busses to Flushing." It has all been downhill from A Century of Progress.
I took my meals next door, with a woman who was the sister of a Methodist bishop. This consanguinity in no way prevented her being the most accomplished black marketeer of 1942. We turned our ration books over to her and asked no questions. At breakfast—the last dry cereal I ever intend to eat—she was already on the phone to her purveyors, who were unknown even to others in the boarding business. I suspect they chained goats in upstairs rooms. At noon we would have a spread the Officers' Club at Jackson Air Force Base could not have matched. Never ask what "stew meat" is. I occasionally see people who used to eat there, indicating that the dangers of cholesterol have been much overstated. The husbands of boardinghouse keepers were a study in themselves. I never saw one lift a hand except to swat flies. They could have given Latin lovers lessons in being kept. Incidentally, it is not correct to say that Thomas Wolfe grew up in a rooming house. He grew up in the family enclave downstairs, a psychological environment wholly other. Look homeward, Swatter. The great poet of the rooming house is E. A. Robinson. Amaranth is full of characters I recognize, and the Arthurian poems would benefit by their presence. Those who dined at a Round Table will have known the boardinghouse reach. Schopenhauer boarded, but had no empathy with the milieu, nor with anything else. It will be the punishment in Hell of Rilke and of other social climbers to be moved from desirable front rooms to the third-floor back.
In September of 1943 I entered Bailey Junior High School in Jackson, a building which had architecture with a vengeance. It is a monument of WPA moderne, and appears frequently in histories of the period. Entering the front foyer was like boarding the Normandie. I had the good fortune to go through junior high school and through high school in the great days of homogenous grouping. After the hearties in Forest and the losers at Mrs. Daniels's, I was in fully congenial company for the first time in my life, and it was imagination run riot. Every time we had to get up a program or perform a skit it got us into deep trouble with the establishment, whose notion of entertainment was an Armistice Day pageant.
All happy adolescences are alike. So are all unhappy adolescences, but writers seem unwilling to face this fact. Mine was the happiest of all, because on my sixteenth birthday my mother turned over the management of my inheritance to me, figuring that, with the example of Mrs. Daniels behind me, I would be more likely to move into a pantry than to squander my substance in riotous living. In a sense, move into a pantry is what I have done. I had the independence everyone else was rebelling for. As a rite of passage,
money is not to be bettered. I had a job; presently I had a car; I had a girlfriend who was pretty enough that she could afford to let her intelligence show. In Jackson, that meant very pretty indeed. One of several wasteful peculiarities about the South was that it compelled smart women to act dumb. A joy of middle age is to encounter old acquaintances who have decided it is no longer necessary to be Betty Boop.
In the afternoons I solicited newspaper subscriptions door-to-door. The Daily Clarion-Ledger felt that wartime upheavals and residential mobility had reduced its circulation below optimal levels, and that the carriers needed help in building it back up. The basic problem, that the paper was lousy, escaped them. The experience taught me more about the streets of Jackson than I cared to know, but the door would frequently open to reveal former boarders become upwardly mobile, and thinner than they had been. The ideal was to make one's quota early and go to a movie. We solicited in pairs, and I was fortunate to work with a classmate who was a real expert, although watching him perform his tricks over and over became like Lillian Gish six times a day. He is now a munitions salesman. But sophisticated weapons systems. Nothing tacky and Rambo.
As a minimal concession to riotous living I would go once or twice a year to New Orleans or to the Gulf Coast. My mecca in Biloxi was the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, a 1920s Moorish wonder whose lobby had an immense bronze-hooded fireplace. Those who are familiar with the average temperatures in Biloxi can draw their conclusions as to the architect's competence. The hotel is the setting of the first act of Sweet Bird of Youth. I have this information from Tennessee Williams himself. I met him at a party in Atlanta and put the question directly. I saw the building for a last time a few weeks before Hurricane Camille entailed its dynamiting. The stucco, which had been buff-colored, had been painted boneyard white and the shutters a dark, dark green. The palm trees had grown very tall. It was Morocco.
Social consciousness was not exactly the Jackson thing, nor, as you will have gathered, is it mine. The great upheaval of my high-school years was a campaign to get rid of high-school fraternities and sororities, both of which, it was felt, promoted snobbery. The campaign was instigated by the Junior League. Think about it. After the passage of more than forty years, and several changes of name and numbering, the street of the former high-school frat houses, located in an otherwise respectable neighborhood, suffers still from depressed real-estate values. A tribute, of sorts.
My other definitive Jackson story dates from later, when, as a college student, I was working at Jackson Public Library, in the Platonic Idea of a Carnegie Building. The head librarian, a capable and dedicated woman, told me that she calculated it took her, simply because she was a woman, exactly twice as long to negotiate with city hall as it would take a man. I add that the remark was made without bitterness, simply as a statement of fact. In fairness to Jackson I suppose I should say that the men in office at city hall were denser than most, although not as dense as they became later. A city commissioner, as I write this, is in prison for trying to fake his own death and collect the insurance. He was a fraternity brother of mine. I wonder if his wife is a Junior Leaguer.
I graduated from high school in June of 1947 and left immediately for Mexico City on a graduation trip with the aforesaid Baron Krupp. Mainly, it was a role reversal. He spoke Spanish and I did not, but I always ended by coping, as I look Mexican. I was the Albeniz accompaniment.
One afternoon at the bullring I saw a picador gored to death. He threw his arms wide, like the woman in Day of Wrath. The rhythm of the senoritas' fans never wavered. It came to me that any mob is a Roman mob, and that there is no reason it should not be. It is how we are. "There is only one beast out there, and it has a thousand heads." The best single subtitle ever projected on the silent screen. I will award my Vicente Blasco-Ibanez Prize, consisting of an eight-by-ten glossy of Nita Naldi, to the reader who identifies it. I sometimes attend the Indianapolis 500, where all I worry about is the structural failure of Styrofoam coolers. Once again, it is the orphans and their punch.
Of Millsaps College I have no criticism and no wish here to speak. It was high school with the road-show cast. I graduated on a Monday; on a Tuesday I bought a brand new convertible; and on Sunday I left for California. The most intelligent week, by a comfortable margin, I ever spent. The Golden State was not then in the grip of the dreaded Sierra Club, and the abominable Ralph Nader had not yet perverted automobile design. My decision postponed, by a calendar year, my being drafted.
On a Saturday six days later, in Yuma, Arizona, I stopped for lunch. I drank iced tea, and I realized that, for the first time in my life, the outside of the glass was not pouring condensation. If your environment has been such that you think of Yuma as an improvement . . .
I have written elsewhere of Stanford University and of my experience with Yvor Winters. Over the more than thirty-five years since I was at Stanford I have been very frequently in "The City," but mainly in the straight, square, overfed San Francisco I saw the first time. The day after I arrived in Palo Alto I checked into a motel across the highway from the enormous hangar built for USS Macon—do not suppose my choice was an accident. You should know that there is only one writer whose home is really worth visiting, and that is William Randolph Hearst. The outdoor pool at San Simeon almost reconciles one to the outdoors.
After a year of enjoying California, I was drafted. That which had darkened my high-school days, had lifted, and had lowered again to darken my last years
in college, was upon me. I was sworn in in Jackson and put on a plane for basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina. Like most scenarios of dread, this one proved illusory. The moment I was actually in the army I had a ball. I was so bored with going to school that an Antarctic expedition would have been diverting, and Fort Jackson was the world of the boardinghouse writ large, in uniform. I knew where I was, and could bring to my situation a lifetime of experience. Why had I not foreseen this?
The one setback was the first weekend I went on pass. Columbia, to my quivering disgust, was indistinguishable from Jackson. WHAT A DUMP. It was more fun to stay on the post, which is exactly what I did until I could get myself together and arrange a bugout. The decision was delicate. Atlanta, where everyone wanted to go, was just outside the three-hundred-mile pass limit; Augusta, where no one wanted to go, was just inside. That left Charlotte. There is one thing worse than a City of Homes, and that is a City of Churches. I swore I would never set foot in Charlotte again, and I have not. Thereafter I got on the bus and went every weekend to Charleston, which is rather like the Vieux Carré depopulated for a science-fiction movie.
I would come back on Sunday night just before lights out. My training company was the diametric opposite of a representative unit in a World War II movie, with the wisecracking Jew from Brooklyn, the laconic Texas cowboy, and the preppie who always went chicken. Except for a Californian (another Californian, as I thought of him) and for me, everyone in the company hailed from within twenty miles of Burlington, North Carolina, and was farther from home than he had ever been. I was twenty-three, and thought of myself as travelled and sophisticated; they were eighteen and desperately homesick. As I walked down the aisle of the barracks toward my bunk, there was a tear in every same corner of every eye. The sergeant would have loved the uniformity of it, had he not been too harried to notice. He was a conscientious man for whom I had, and have, infinite respect. God will get me for making fun of those boys, all too many of whom died in Korea, but I did have the charity to realize that what they needed was a landlady, which, up to a level, the army is. The knowledge of that is what makes From Here to Eternity a very good novel and a very great document.
Training ended, just before Christmas. One would surely go to Korea, a landscape of infinite boredom inhabited mostly by Protestant missionaries.
One did not go to Korea. On a dazzling January day—my birthday—my troopship stood off San Juan, above the thirty-thousand-foot-deep Puerto Rican Trench. I cannot swim, but it did not matter. On its white limestone bluff, above the blue Atlantic, the white dome of the Capitolio nosed in and out of the morning fog. The fog cleared; we sailed under the turrets of El Morro into the Bay of San Juan. At our left a small city rose from the flats of the bay to the low heights on the ocean side. The ocean was now out of sight. The waters of the bay had the ambiguous colors of a tortoise shell.
Disembarking at Fort Buchanan, we got on busses to go to Camp Tortuguero ("Place of the Turtle"), about twenty miles west of San Juan on the north coast. The drive took us through orange and red and yellow cannas springing out of green and bronze leaves, through poinsettias exploded out of pots into full-scale trees, through flamboyants in bloom—and they were like mimosas with their insipid colors intensified—through frangipani, and through tulip trees. I had an irrational desire to buy a bulldozer and plow under every stupid pink rosebush in the South. We arrived at Campamento Tortuguero, and I entered a life composed, in about equal parts, of the Foreign Legion, the Raj, and a Guianese penal battalion.
Having made it all the way through college and graduate school with a roommate for only one quarter of one year, I found that I would now be living in a 14-by-l4-foot hut with seven other men, six of whom were tall. All of those knees and elbows! By observing a code of the mosquito net, we managed not to kill one another. If one withdrew into one's bunk and lowered the net it was as if one were not there. Nobody would make an inquiry or ask for a cigarette or expect one to make a fourth at bridge. The arrangement would not be possible now. Arguments would break out over smoking, and I personally plot at once the murder of anyone who brings a ghetto blaster within fifty feet of me.
Our huts at Tortuguero had many problems, but ventilation was not one of them. They had a concrete slab for a floor, board walls to a height of perhaps four feet, screen wire above that, and a tar-paper roof. The basic design is popular in favelas all over Latin America. The 196 square feet had to accommodate—besides the eight bunks—eight footlockers and eight field packs, as well as eight rather elaborate civilian wardrobes. Korea was a long way off.
Outside it was sand and palm trees and a flamboyant that was a pillar of fire by day. Beyond the cleared area the Caribbean pines rose tall, their droopy needles making the trees look like watercolors of themselves. The only pine I ever saw that I do not reckon in board feet. The sea was not visible, but darkened the horizon a little from below. In January, when I arrived, the weather was cool and flawless. At other times it was hot and spaced about with rainbows.
Our assignment was to teach English as a second language to Puerto Rican trainees. The all-insular Sixty-fifth Infantry Regiment, "Nuestro Regimiento," had mutinied in combat, and convenience dictated that the insurrection be ascribed to a failure of communication. More, not less, cultural imperialism would solve the problem. Two civil-service charlatans who had left the States during the Depression devised our method, which would be appropriate for the edification of mynah birds. In 118 hours of training a company received on the order of 40 hours of language instruction. A Spanish-speaking instructor would brief the company as a whole on the content of the lessons, then break them up into smaller groups for individualized instruction. We acted less as instructors than as cheerleaders, pronouncing the phrases and sentences to be repeated individually and in unison by the "students." The brass of course loved it, for the appearance of activity and uniformity, and did not care whether it produced speakers who knew what they were saying. Like all people who grow up chewing sugarcane the trainees had no teeth. This spaciousness, in conjunction with the bewildering range of accents to which they were subjected, resulted in sounds as to whose usefulness I can only speculate. The speakers might have succeeded in propositioning Noam Chomsky—and would have, in a minute; their greed exceeded you know whose—but I cannot believe they ever broke the sound barrier sufficiently, say, to ask directions. Meanwhile, we picked up a Spanish whose usefulness was equally limited. If you like to hear obscenities in the Hispanic equivalent of Gabby Hayes, I am your man.
In the beginning all of the cadre, including the English instructors, wore pith helmets, as if we were searching out rebellious Moros. If my prejudices offend you, you can say we are what we wear. Apparently, we are also what we eat. We had a Puerto Rican mess, and although as, given my upbringing, you might guess, I loved it, the All-American boys found it totally threatening. Agitation for a "continental" mess never ceased. When we got one, what the Puerto Rican cooks did with steak and potatoes started a stampede back to the indigenous, which I, of course, had never left in the first place. The red beans and rice, the candied plantain, fresh pineapple, and powdered-milk ice cream were the best publicly prepared food I had had since I had given up boarding. The Piña fresca was not 100 percent dependable. Although a pineapple plantation abutted the camp on one side, we frequently had Dole, from Hawaii. All of this, and permanent KPs, hired at a wage that would have made White Rhodesians blush.
I had a second assignment. I served on the firing squad that toured the island for military funerals. For reasons of tact, there had to be a continental on the squad, and I inherited the duty because I was the only one small enough to wear the pretailored uniforms. The gesture was statistic rather than outwardly symbolic, because by then I had such a convincing suntan that it got me Jim Crowed on a train out of Fort Knox when I was finally separated.
It took the army a full eighteen months to get dead bodies from Korea to Puerto Rico, and almost as long to return live ones, as many irate cadre could attest. A ship with coffins would dock at Fort Buchanan every six weeks or so; we would then go out for funerals once or twice a week, in a weapons carrier, into the remotest hills.
Our uniform could hardly be described as deep mourning: white spats, white gloves, a sky blue helmet-liner, and a sky blue scarf. Wildest of all, a white sling on the rifles. Just try to keep Cosmoline off of a white sling.
The rifles were M-l's, and I should willingly have exchanged mine for an Enfield, allowing even for the 1.5-pound difference in weight. The trouble with the M-l's was that they were cranky, and misfired frequently. We lived in dread that we would raise the rifles over the grave, that all six would misfire simultaneously, and we would look as foolish as our uniforms.
The eighteen-month time lag meant that the grief process, as the psychiatrists would say, was reopened just as it began to heal. Grief did not, however, flood out courtesy. The poorest family served us coffee, and would make an effort to speak to me in English. I appreciated it then, and appreciate it now. As the casualties went on, I got to see more and more of the island. Hairpin curves such as one would expect in Switzerland, but overhung with the lushest vegetation this side of the Amazon. In the rear of the weapons carrier we used to grab for orchids. The highest villages were surprisingly nontropical. Protestant, one would say.
Nights during the week divided the catatonic, who took to their bunks, from those who tried to make a sort of life. One could go to the Service Club, but only if one were stone-deaf or deeply into mambo music. Just outside the gate was Miguel's, which was a clean, well-lighted place, but had nothing else to recommend it, although to walk down the long hill from the gate to the hutment area in bright moonlight, and in the Caribbean there is never any other kind, was an experience I think of more often than I care to admit to you. If one were sober one could walk backwards and see the Southern Cross rise over the unmistakable profile of the limestone outcropping that identified Tortuguero. It has been plagiarized at Ancon Hill in Panama and at the Peak in Hong Kong.
One left at noon on Saturday for San Juan. "Publicos," unmetered taxis, gathered at the gate, and as soon as they had a full complement, i.e., 104 persons, would roar off. The route took us past Caño Martin Peña and El Fanguito, by common consent the most appalling slums in the West Indies. To the extent I noticed, I thought them picturesque. I am prepared to defend my perception. The complicated catwalks over the mud flats of Fanguito were like a Mondrian deliberately shriveled, and Martin Peña was the Sausalito of the downwardly mobile. If a houseboat stranded it became a house; if a house floated away it became a houseboat.
You must understand that San Juan in 1953 was B.C.—Before Castro. The big tourist money went to Havana. Puerto Rico was a backwater, which is what one liked about it. What is now the Gold Coast had exactly two hotels: the Condado Beach, dating from the period of the Edgewater Gulf, and the pristine Caribe Hilton, completed in 1947. In uniform one went to the Condado; in civvies one went to the Hilton. The bar at the Condado was a quadrant of plate glass facing straight at the sea. Iridescent green inside the reef and agate blue without: fire nearer and veining farther.
In the evening, before air-conditioning, San Juan lived in its doorways and on its balconies. To walk the Calle Fortaleza was as much a social as an exercising experience. To walk the Calle Luna was an even more social experience, but that is not what I am talking about. I am puzzled as to what use households could have had for as many sewing machines as one saw: electric models, treadle models, hemstitching machines, portables, and versions that looked like—dare I say it?—chain saws. The number of flatirons was not in proportion; starched petticoats cannot have been the answer. Even then, guyaberas and ruffled shirts came from Taiwan. Was all of the city stitching for Pedro Albizu Campos, the local separatist? He kept himself wrapped in wet bed sheets under an impression the U.S. was bombarding him with death rays.
On weekends when I was too broke to do the hotels I would make the stroll from the Capitolio to El Morro. That route is on the high side of town, and the trade winds came whipping over. The breakers roared in on the Atlantic like the Red Sea closing over the Egyptians. One afternoon I saw a wave break all the way over the top of the lighthouse at El Morro. Until it broke it had seemed no higher than another.
To get back to camp one had to go to Bus Stop Number Fifteen and hail a publico. "Parada Quinze" was more than a bus stop. It was a way of life. Much of the city's night life blossomed here, the site of the iniquitous China Doll. The name on the canopy was in English, and was the one phrase you could count on the trainees to know. Returning the compliment, we chose to call it Muñeca China. It was an unremarkable dive with a sensational approach. The lighted canopy on the sidewalk led, not to a doorway and an interior, but to an external ramp that descended between two buildings to the waters of the bay itself. Fanguito was not all that distant, in several senses. At the bottom of the ramp one turned to the left, went through a battered door, and turned left again, into a dimly lit staircase that went upward forever. At the top it was right again, and one more step, on which everyone always tripped, into the dance bar. The dance floor was not large, and there was only one other room, the latter devoted wholly to gaming. The club was never especially crowded, since the coming and going—the raison d'être—took care of, and was, the overflow. The presence of merchant seamen suggested that the notoriety of the China Doll was international. U.S. sailors—the navy—seldom appeared, rarely being sober enough to negotiate the trapped approach. One saw a few at the gaming tables, but the shore patrol had its hands full merely dragging the gobs out of the gutters, and I am speaking literally. Marines, in from Vieques, and a cliquish lot, partied elsewhere in their own locales, nearer downtown. A good thing, because they were indefatigable brawlers. I suspect them of being orphans grown old.
The trip back to camp was invariably bloodcurdling, the publico drivers having spent the day pretty much as we did. However, I was always too pleased with myself to care.
I made two trips to Saint Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, where I made the invidious discovery that there were tours of duty cushier than ours. Then, at Christmas,
training closed down at Tortuguero so the trainees could go home before being shipped out. The authorities told the cadre, in effect, to get lost and it would not come off leave time. On New Year's Day of 1954 I flew to Puerto Principe—Port-au-Prince; pardon me—and spent a week in Haiti.
When I got back I learned that I was being transferred to Henry Barracks, at Cayey, in the interior. I cursed myself for not remaining in Haiti and becoming a derelict, but the transfer turned out to be my high period in the military. Cayey was a loss, but the post was attractive and quiet. In the evenings it smelled of frangipani. One lived in a permanent barracks, not of the Von Sternberg grandeur at Fort Brooke, but on a par with Schofield, and one did a certain amount of serious soldiering. It was a glimpse at career men and at a peacetime army I should have hated to miss.
The barracks looked out on a favela known as El Polvorín. Occupying a conical hill, it was more vertical and better drained than Fanguito or Martin Peña, but more politicized. The word means "powder keg." The post commander would have loved to put up an off-limits sign, but his noncoms told him an appreciable percentage of his men had family there. You cannot put a man's own home off limits, unless you want to encourage desertion. El Coronel mounted instead a never-ending campaign about the VD rate, which was, I do not doubt, spectacular. But Polvorín too was picturesque. In the Virgin Islands it would have been a tourist attraction. To look at, I mean.
As my enlistment neared its end a curious little game began with Fortune, Empress of the World. Dienbienphu went under siege in March 1954, and there was a strong possibility that John Foster Dulles would take the U.S. into Indo-China, meaning that all enlistments would be indefinitely extended. I well remember sweating out the weeks after the French surrender in May, especially since, before the threat, I had considered reenlisting. If I could have been sure of staying in the Antilles, I would have. In the event my luck held—I guess; even now I have a little shadow of doubt—and I was separated in September of 1954. My first act on becoming a civilian (remember that it had to reassure me as to the wisdom of my decision) was to buy a Countess Mara tie.
I went back to work for the library in Jackson, moving us out of the gemütlich red brick Carnegie building into an off-putting Bauhaus module on North State Street. "If you can't circulate books across the street from Sears Roebuck," said the head librarian, "you had better give up."
Another two years in Mississippi and I was off to South Africa. From my desk at Jackson Municipal Library I was recruited on a three-year contract with the Transvaal Provincial Library, an arm of the Provincial Administration. The province would pay my way out and back.
It would have flown me, but I elected to go by ship, a Lykes freighter I had to chase around the gulf from New Orleans to Port Arthur, Texas. On British, Dutch, and even French ships you see instantly that in those countries the sea is an ancient and honored profession. On American ships you see people who cannot hold a job on land. I was the only passenger, and ate with the ship's officers. They were a talkative company, but talked mostly to themselves. Sparks, who must have been ten years beyond mandatory retirement, was undoubtedly the operator who failed to hear the Titanic. At boat drill I had, let us be blunt, a sinking feeling. Seniority in the maritime union has its place, but the burning deck is not it. Boy, namely me, would have to make his own arrangements if we went down.
There were men on the quarterdeck who had not been ashore in a decade. They joined the merchant marine to get away from all that. There is also the probability that waiting at the gangplank were subpoenas for nonpayment of child support. Never believe that sailors have a girl in every port. They cannot deal with one girl in one port. Surely that is what the myth of Lorelei is about. If you feel threatened every time a woman combs her hair . . . .
Freighters proceed with a great sense of effort. This one could have labored in a calm sea with the current behind it. Our wake, to the extent we could generate one, looked a mess, always an indication of poor hull design. At seventeen days out we ran into really rough weather. One kept an eye out for the Flying Dutchman. We were in his latitudes. At twenty days out the storm dissipated, but we were battering into the notorious cape rollers that build up from the Antarctic. I took to my bed. I have never been able to reread Nostromo, because it is associated in my mind with a certain sort of motion.
Table Mountain, which is ordinarily visible twenty miles out to sea, did not, because of a temperature inversion, reveal itself until we were practically upon it. The navigation officer was sweating. Tafelberg, I must tell you, looks less tabular and more mountainous than it photographs. In four visits to the Cape I have not made it out to Blouberg Strand, which is where you have to go to get the full effect of the flat top. In the lifetime of General Smuts, people would go up on the mountain and have mystic experiences, but I believe there is less of that today.
Cape Town is quiet and self-effacing, content to let the scenery make its effect. The civil service sent a representative to ease my way through customs and immigration, which I expected to be inquisitorial. It was not. The officer asked if I was bringing in pornography, but his interest may have been personal rather than official. He twitched a lot. He asked if I were traveling with used beehive equipment. I resisted an urge to say, "I never go anywhere without it." He waved us through.
My chaperon checked me into a small hotel whose grounds backed up to the servants' quarters at the Mount Nelson. I went to bed, but without the motion of the ship I could not sleep. I got up, dressed, and went through the back door into the Empire. It was the first time in my life I ever actually saw moustache wax, and women at the Mount Nelson have the look of blue rinse without the use of it. I was glad I had had the ship's steward trim my hair, although I got my ear nicked in the process. No one spoke. Not to me, not to one another. That's the way the Empire is. The ranking waiters had a strange walk. After twenty-two days at sea, I had it myself. Union Castle Steamship owned the hotel, and I presume rotated personnel ship to shore as demand required.
The next morning I left for Pretoria on the Orange Free State local. Civil servants travel on a first-class concession. I had a compartment with varnished wood and green leather, and a rubber mounting for one's flawlessly accurate pocket watch. If I had known I could have taken my grandfather's out of the bank.
Once we left the Cape behind, the barrenness of the landscape was airbrush lunar and could not have pleased me more. The form of the koppies was familiar, as if Polvorín had fallen victim to slum clearance.
In the shuttered corridors of the train one expected to encounter Shanghai Lily at the very least, but I met instead a bright-eyed old Afrikaner who travelled because he liked steam locomotives. Destination was not important.
I have a rule of thumb that saves me a great deal of time. In reading any article about South Africa, at the first reference to the Afrikaners as dour, I throw the publication into the wastebasket. I have been a librarian for thirty-five years, and I do not hesitate to trash hardcover books. Afrikaners are about as dour as Neapolitans. They may be dour in dealing with the media, but so am I, and for the same reason: contempt. We should hail the heirs of those who wrote "Kiss me, My Fool" (the second-best subtitle ever projected on the silent screen) as oracles?
The trip occupied two days and two nights, although the expresses make it in twenty-seven hours.
By midafternoon of the second day we were nearing the Rand. Dusty yellow roads ran through yellow grass. Great numbers of Africans on foot and on bicycles hurried from no discernible point of origin toward no discernible destination. The women among them wore a sort of uniform: a turtleneck jersey, a straight skirt with a very wide leather belt, and a tam. Color was evidently a matter of choice. It was the exception to see anyone, male or female, in tribal dress. I shall not describe those commuters as smiling and happy and full of natural rhythm, but I shall say nothing could have been less like the changing of shifts in Metropolis.
The wind came up sharply; the air began to glitter; a fine granulation rang time after time on the pane. We drew abreast of a great golden butte: an Aztec pyramid of golden sand. A prodigious plume streamed off the summit, looking far more a natural phenomenon than the "tablecloth" in Cape Town. Eighty years of mining on the Witwatersrand had made of it a landscape unique in the world, and of every housewife an unwilling Danaë.
The train was now looping among a massif of the dumps. Some were terraced and hieratic, like Teotihuacán; others had heavily eroded sides, such as one might see in a rainy Babylon; a few were simply gigantic sand dunes. At Alberton, as at the end of a canyon, one saw for a moment the concrete skyline of Johannesburg itself. After a great deal of switching—"shunting," as I would learn to say—we pulled out of Germiston for Pretoria.
All civil-service towns are alike. Pretoria, Ottawa, Canberra, Washington. Pretoria, having been a garrison town, and Herbert Baker's trial run for New Delhi, is far more interesting than the others. Past the Voortrekker Monument, as improbable on its hill as Wallace Stevens's jar in Tennessee, we coasted into Sir Herbert's Pretoria Station.
Life occurs in the first person, in the strictest chronological order. That is the sequence I have followed in this sketch. However, I want to jump ahead a few days, to the first visit I made to Johannesburg. From the first full day it was apparent that Pretoria would have its attractions, but that there would also have to be a life of the weekends. So, on a brilliantly sunny Sunday, with the shadows already lengthening—it was increasingly colder, and the Rand is a thousand feet higher than Pretoria—I stepped out of Johannesburg Station into the city I still prefer to any other in the world. There is simply no real point in being anywhere else. By any conventional definition the central city is ugly: a concrete jungle comprising a bad copy of every bad building built in the twenties and thirties. But among them are the fractal cast iron and the raw tin roofs of the eighties and nineties, and above them a sky whose blue perhaps only diamond merchants can fully value.
The mining camp is wholly present: in the offset streets where the properties enjambed; in the tremors as the miles of tunnels collapse; in the dust in the air; in the hardhats on the streets; in the friendliness; in the ostentation; in the cruelty; in the persistence of hangover at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon; in an avarice so complete as to be almost moral.
I walked from Park Station down Joubert Street to Commissioner Street, seeing, in what seemed to me the least likely setting, more Africans than I had so far seen in tribal dress. Groups of street musicians played as if shilling for Bourbon Street bars, of which there were none. At six o'clock the streets began to fill up with people who had come downtown for the "bioscope." If Jo'burg was Babylon, it was the Babylon of D. W. Griffith. I had been gawking at the most impressive building on Commissioner Street, His Majesty's Theatre. South Africa would be in the Commonwealth a few years more, and Elizabeth II was undoubted queen, but no one—except the magistrates and the Mount Nelson—bothered any longer to change pronouns. The building owed something, owed everything, to a building that still exists in Kreuzberg-Berlin, but the narrow streets of Johannesburg give its constructions a scale they do not earn. Neon crowns on the twin towers might have been at the height of the Chicago Board of Trade.
A discreet sign beckoned into "His Majesty's Cellar." One went down a short staircase past what I can describe only as a beaded curtain with enormous iron chain-links for beads. Very Weimar Republic. One hardly had the strength to part them, but the Boere and the Rooinekke are a hardy mix. A British pop group performed in vowels that offended even the Rooinekke, but the sustaining pianist played a medley from Lehár's Land des Lächelns, including "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz." I came within five minutes of missing the last train back to Pretoria, and the streets of Johannesburg after midnight can chill the blood of an old Parada Quinze hand.
Transvalse Provinsiale Biblioteek acted as a mother ship to public libraries all over the province. After a century of Boss Tweed and Boss Crump and T. J. Pendergast and Mayor Daley, Americans, with some justification, hold municipal government in disregard. In South Africa the burgermeester is a figure of consequence, with a chain of authority and a mystique that goes back to Rembrandt; and suburbs rush to incorporate with the frenzy U.S. counties reserve for resisting.
The Dutch Reformed congregations of Transvaal, as they grew prosperous, commissioned some of the farthest-out church buildings in the world (I told you South Africa was full of jolts), and as soon as the new kerke were financed, turned their attention to other amenities. We advised as to programs, architects, and interim arrangements. The province supplied a stock of fiction and other popular reading, exchanged at intervals, so that the local communities could spend their money on buildings, physical equipment, and reference materials. The most insensitive Rand had a cloudy conscience over the expenditure of money on some groups and not others. The town council might be solidly Afrikaans-speaking, but the library boards would always have English-speaking members. The argument in regard to the Black population was that priority should go to primary reading materials—textbooks, etc.—and so far as it went, the argument may have been correct. If it had convenient side effects, so much the better for the party in power.
I have to say, however, that in the definition of short-term goals, the adjustment of ends to means, and the avoidance of inappropriate models, the Provincial Library System was by far the most sensible organization for which I ever worked. Academia in the sixties was an encounter between Chicken Little and the Swine of the Gadarene, and it is now the House of Baba Yaga, lurching on its chicken legs from intellectual chic to intellectual chic. You may argue, with Brecht, that it is not possible to do good in an evil society, but if that is true it is impossible to do good at all, as Calvin would remind us.
Only Union civil servants worked in the viceregal sprawl of the Union Buildings. Our headquarters were in a business building off Church Square, in Pretorius Street. At lunchtime we could walk through the Indian market, or eat in the square, an environment in which Leni Riefenstahl at either end of her career would have gone out of her mind.
Early in the week I and a supervisor or a driver-clerk would set out on an itinerary of small towns. Very soon I divided them by a classification of my own. The Rand towns, mining towns not on the Rand, and really rural towns. The last were like small towns in Texas, and, except for the language, known quantities to me. We stayed in hotels of blameless respectability that looked, however, like backdrops for dance hall girls and shoot-outs. The local librarian, or the board members, would entertain us, and one learned to deal with Barries and Peacocks whose mother tongue was Afrikaans, and with Krugers and Strydoms who appeared in the white flannels of the cricket pitch. The mayor of Vereeniging was named Chatterton. As one prepared to say, "And when did you leave England, Mr. Chatterton?" an archetypal Afrikaner came in. The remotest dorp has its English-speaking pharmacist, and in the heart of Johannesburg are regte Boere. American and European reporting vastly exaggerates the language division. White South Africa may not be a seamless scale, but it certainly a continuum. Natal may have people who plant rosebushes and long for "home," but in the Transvaal the English-speaking know perfectly well where their roots are, and it is a slander to imply that they love the country less than the Afrikaners do. They may love it more. They have more money there.
The Provincial Government had a good deal of the missionary spirit so far as Ons Volk were concerned, and tried to assure that no pocket of population, however isolated, was without access to information, as we should now say. We had library depots, consisting of a few shelves in a metal case we provided, at post offices, stores, and private homes. One morning I and my driver, who was white, stopped at a community that comprised two houses on a drainage ditch. One was like any other Afrikaner farmhouse, although there was no farm; its neighbor would have embarrassed El Fanguito. The lady of the house received us; her husband, whose employment one could only surmise, was also at home. The woman, of middle age, was vivid and attractive, a little broader in her gestures than I was used to seeing. The husband was blond and robust, but had a look of defeat. Mevrou served us coffee and set out a plate of koeksisters, twisted doughnuts dripping in a sugar syrup. I think of them whenever I find mention of Twisted Sister, the heavy-metal group. A call out the kitchen window brought over the neighbor, another bright-eyed old Boer. The eyes of Afrikaans men do not age. He himself brought over a banjo, and a bottle of witblits, otherwise white lightning. He played a few numbers, not boeremusiek but something I did not then recognize. The lyrics, though, were Afrikaans, and the woman joined in now and then. Two things struck me. The absolute isolation of the little group, although there was no real reason for it; Vereeniging was in full view down the veld. And the fact that my driver, who had not impressed me as a sensitive man, treated the woman with beautiful courtesy.
As we drove off he smiled at me. "You know that was a Coloured woman."
I lifted an eyebrow. "Do you know them?"
"No. But I can tell. The way she had the furniture placed: cater-cornered; you saw. The Cape Coloureds always do that. And the pictures on the wall."
I had a vision of the Vice Squad measuring the angle of furniture with a protractor and checking for Maxfield Parrishes, but I also remembered Ollewagen's courtesy.
"Well, you may be right. Obviously they never see anyone except the old man."
"No kids; they don't have to deal with schools. Probably the husband does the shopping. Or maybe not. Outside the Cape not many people would notice. And who cares. She's a nice woman."
"Do you think the old oomie knows?"
"Sure he knows. The place is his, incidentally. He doesn't have to live like that. It's his names on the application forms, anyway." He tapped his clipboard. "He's just decided to go native. Can't be bothered. The church ladies would be much more likely to take her in than him. You can go much farther native than that, of course. The man who has the depot outside Louis Trichardt lives with a Venda woman, but he sends her out to the pondokkie on library day."
The Rand towns had a look all their own, as if each maze of tunnels underground had projected itself upward, to be adopted as a street plan. One felt, and was near the truth in so feeling, that the real townships were underground, and that the mine headgear were the gateways to them. The great dumps dwarfed without effort anything in their vicinity, and in Berioni, Brakpan, and Springs, buildings wisely rose no more than two or three stories. The eighties and nineties dealt with it better. A line of red corrugated-iron gables against a golden mine dump makes the very concept of "wilderness" seem the pretentious nonsense it is.
Hanging unspoken over the East Rand is the spectre of 1922: the full-scale Red revolt, i.e., White revolt, whose shadow conditions so much today. All of the antilabor legislation in South Africa did not originate with the Nationalist party. The spectre stalking the West Rand is that of the Jameson Raid. The insurrectionists were apprehended and detained in Krugersdorp. The raid took place on New Year's Day, when, then as now, the Last Trump could not rouse Johannesburg.
Mining has pursued geology westward down the reef in a great arc into the Free State. Isolated mines had depots in the Club, an institution that fascinated me, in that it combined in one hierarchy the analogue of the Noncommissioned Officers' Club and of the Officers' Club. The internal snobberies may have approached critical mass, but they did not apply to visitors. One never saw the mine officials; only their likeable, leathery wives. "Blondes don't last in this climate," one of them said to me, "but turning to leather is a small price to pay to get out of the English winter. Here I am, learning to prat the taal, but that's all right too. Nie waar nie, meneer?"
"Jolly well right," said my driver, perhaps in irony, perhaps not. His name was Steenkamp.
In Pretoria I had a flat off Arcadia Park and took my meals down the street at a private hotel. A private hotel is a boardinghouse. Frankly, there was not much to do in Pretoria except eat.
I read The Magic Mountain and I stayed out of bars. The game of darts is as frightening a follow-up to alcohol as floorboarding the car, and Pretorians play it like Puerto Ricans drive. I felt no need to become a Saint Sebastian of the civil service.
Much of downtown is as if that ethnic vending operation under the arcade of the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe had gone out of control and spread in all directions: a pallet party run amok. The Black population was inseparable from the blanket, on which took place business, meal preparation, child care, gossip, and siesta. One might say that the blanket provided everything except security. Pretoria made the interpenetrating invisible-to-one-another realities of the mathematicians seem the dimensions of everyday life. The Bantu filled every space not occupied by the White constructs, and believe me, for practical purposes they were simply not there. But that is true of servants everywhere. The convention of the Kabuki stage, whereby the stagehands are invisible, is universally applicable and universally applied. We have a common humanity, and nothing makes us happier than to fragment it.
For all of its small-town ambience Pretoria can put on a good show, and no city has a more secure sense of its own history. Government House makes Groote Schuur look like a remodeling job, which it is. The newer mansion postdates the Rhodes house by almost twenty years, and by then Herbert Baker really had his hand in. For nonroyals the office of governor-general has been thankless. The usual criticism was, too grand for the Afrikaners and not grand enough for the English. I do not know if the state presidents ever resolved the problem, and the executive president, I hope, has more important things on his mind. I do not think that Wallis Windsor would have found Pretoria much more congenial than she found Nassau; I mean, if she thought her sister-in-law was frumpy . . . . But she would have understood Johannesburg utterly, and it her.
After ten months in Pretoria, I was reassigned to the Germiston Regional Library, to assist in planning and operating a bookmobile service in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. You must understand that this is roughly comparable to running a bookmobile in Brentwood, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills, in terms of both the distances and the wealth. We mapped out likely routes and made trial runs, but had no real notion what to expect. The one certain thing was that the driver-clerks would have a high absentee rate, so as a contingency I took out a heavy-vehicle license.
Happily our service was a success from the first. The rich go after free services as eagerly as the poor, perhaps more eagerly, as they have the perception that the services are financed mostly from their taxes. Ladies left the tennis courts and swimming pools to storm our doors. I can report that both Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch were popular, and that Ivy Compton Burnett was a positive cult. I belonged to the Compton Burnett cult myself, and still do. The Mandelbaum Gate suggests that Miss Spark could deal lethally with Johannesburg, but to do it full justice would require Dame Ivy. "I believe it would go ill with many of us, if we were faced by a strong temptation, and I suspect that with some of us it does go ill. . . . Isolation and leisure put nothing into people. But they give what is there full play. They allow it to grow according to itself, and this may be strongly in certain directions."
The matrons of Illovo, Bryanston, and Buccleuch were as happy to be out of England as their sisters at the mines, and could afford more expensive skin care. Again, they were friendly as the English in England seldom are, outspoken in their antigovernment politics, and contemptuous of those who spoke of "home." They were as considerate of the feelings of my driver as my other driver had been of the Coloured woman outside Vereeniging.
One of our stops was at a township called Wynberg. Twenty years after its proclamation it consisted of three houses, of which one was occupied by a veteran of El Alamein and his wife. Across the highway was Alexandra Township, an eyesore on the order of a flattened-out Polvorín, but desirable residential property for Africans, because they could own it freehold, until such time as the government could figure out a loophole in the proclamation, which went all the way back to the Widow Oosthuizen and the discovery of gold. No adults from Alexandra attempted to avail themselves of our service, but we turned away a few children, who may or may not have been literate.
I should insult the intelligence of my coworkers if I suggested that they were not aware of a disproportion in our efforts. They simply regarded library service for Africans as something in the future, and in the province of the Bureau of Native Affairs, as it then was. During the unrest after the Sharpville riots—the first Sharpville riots, those in 1960—we continued to make our stop. A few tanks and a few Saracens (armored troop carriers) sat at the ready on the borders of Alexandra, but I know for a fact that a friend of mine who had a trading license there—he was the Avon lady, as it were—continued to make his calls. The women of Alexandra would no more have given up skin care than those of Illovo. The veteran and his wife continued to read Angela Thirkell.
Germiston is twenty-five minutes from Johannesburg by train, and I lost no time in moving to Hillbrow, the most densely populated square mile in the British Commonwealth. I had a flat on Clarendon Circle, on the fourteenth floor, looking down Empire Road. The Rand commuter trains went through the heaviest concentration of mine dumps on the reef, and our headquarters in Germiston looked out on the most golden mound of all. It was not the newest, nor the biggest, only the goldest. I assume that it was the last created by some superseded process, since in the sixty miles from Springs to Krugersdorp it was nowhere duplicated. It reduced me to eyedrops, but what washed out was gold.
As I would rush for the 7:10 out of Johannesburg Station the Black labor force was pouring into town 300,000 strong. I can see that most people would find Johannesburg appalling, but I do not honestly see how they could find it depressing. There is too much vitality. The Blacks in Pretoria had seemed merely displaced and stunned. These were lively and purposeful: real urbanites. They too had to occupy an alternative reality, but were already making something of it. Influx control limited the number of live-in servants apartment houses or private homes could employ, and a good thing it did, or the residents would have had themselves carried from room to room in sedan chairs. As it was the limits were generous, and I did not have to make a bed nor wash a dish. The "locations in the sky," the servants' quarters on the roofs of the high rises, ripped and roared. In the life of Hillbrow, it was "Upstairs, Upstairs."
The domestics played their pennywhistles and played their radios, had a network of knucklebone games that could no more have been mapped than could have the tunnels underground, but whose attraction was so compulsive that the most intense lightning storms could not drive the players under cover, and had a trolley system of clotheslines by which bottles of liquor could be sped from roof to roof. Weight permitting, afternoon ladies of the evening could be trolleyed.
The humane objection to the Pass Laws was that they made it impossible for workers to have their families with them, but I have no doubt that for the younger men, abandoning family was an attraction of Johannesburg. Certainly the recruiters for the mining companies knew that it was not only economic necessity that drove workers into their hands, and were careful to stress the aspects of adventure and rakishness. I do not wish to downplay the force of poverty, but I do not for one moment believe that young men in Africa differ from those elsewhere, and what a blanketed "crocodile" of mine laborers being marched along the sidewalk toward Fordsburg most resembled was a line of recruits at Fort Jackson waiting to go on pass.
On the other side of Louis Botha Avenue from the concrete escarpments of Hillbrow was Parktown, the onetime mandate of the Randlords. It had a sense, if not of ocean, of old trees, the more alluring that, in 1888, it was, like everything else on the site of Johannesburg, bare veld. There is very little that Sir Herbert and enough gardeners could not accomplish. When I reconnoitered Parktown it was block by block, with as clear a projection of its future as of its past. I had seen Saratoga Avenue, where the Randlords lived before they went onward and upward. Saratoga Avenue was Rooming House Row, which is where Parktown was clearly headed, in spite of the liveried servants, Bentleys, and guard dogs.
Baker's own house was there, as formidable a playpen as ever a kindergarten had, and far along the ridge to the east of it was a spreading, stretched-out copy, at the end of a dead-end climb where the site dropped off and you felt there was nothing between you and Rhodesia. It was the most extravagant view in Africa, and I allow for the Fairest Cape.
But the flagship house in Parktown is not Baker's. It is Dolobran, the work of Cope Christie. At the intersection of Oxford Road and Victoria Avenue, it waits the entrance of the gods into Valhalla. In 1922 the owner directed the military operations against the strikers. Artillery mounted on the lawn at Dolobran fired on Brixton Ridge. It is a neat reversal of the cliché: mansions firing on revolutionaries rather than vice versa. Most of Parktown is gone, but the red brick house on the crag is still there. Who would be foolhardy enough to eminent domain it? Another survivor, with onion domes on the turrets, was known to its owner as Turnip Towers. Parktown had a sense of humor. Houghton, the new money, has none.
Angst is no more interesting when it is justified than when it isn't, and I avoided Houghton liberals. Occasionally, nevertheless, would come an invitation I could not refuse. I wonder, now that events have passed them by, what has become of Johannesburg's drawing-room Africans, the trade guild that, by intent at least, enlivened our evenings as balloons and bellygrams enliven evenings of the well-to-do in Buckhead and Burlingame.
I can tell you that the Africans were professionals. Amateurs would have murdered the hosts. The ongoing crisis was the loo. If there were small children in the house the decision could be dealt with deftly. "Oh, Mr. Dimbaza. Nurse is bathing the children upstairs. Would you mind using the lavatory off the kitchen?" Mr. Dimbaza, who knew where his bread was buttered, never batted an eye. More often it was less subtle. "Oh, Mr. Dimbaza. We're putting in a sauna upstairs. [The sauna in the pool house is not adequate?] Would you mind using the lavatory off the kitchen?" The more experienced hostesses would designate a little boys' room and a little girls' room. After Mr. Dimbaza's first trip, none of the other men seemed able to remember which was which. The real pros of the guild would go early to both. Two can play a forgetting game, and "Mr. Dimbaza" would then have the pleasure of watching the Whites fidget, but would not be invited back.
The stories that were told disappointed. I could have told grimmer, but the guild knew exactly where to draw the line, not wishing to spoil dinner, especially their own. Mind you, I do not doubt that every slight, injustice, and brutality occurred. I do not think that every one occurred to every teller. No guest ever asked for corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude. They may have taken the narrations, like bellygrams, for what they were, a ritual gesture. One evening I heard the host say to "Mr. Dimbaza," in exactly these words, "You can use the servants' lavatory." I do not customarily leap to the defense of my hometown, but no husband of a Jackson Junior Leaguer would have done that. Buckhead would, if ever it invited Blacks in the first place. It is a pity that Houghton is in no way worthy of Helen Suzman, who for three decades has represented it in Parliament.
The interesting parties were not the Houghton guilt trips but the Hillbrow Saturday nights. Without particular effort one could find an evening in which the conversation drifted from English to Afrikaans to Flemish to Dutch (never try to persuade a speaker that those three are the same language) to German. If you really want to liven up things bring on the dour Afrikaners. One of the Dutch Reformed churches will drink but not dance; one will dance but not drink; and one will not do either. However, there is no need to try to keep the distinctions straight, as, after passing up the first round of drinks, the communicants will usually say, "Well, we all have the Devil in us," and drink everyone else under the table.
In Johannesburg bars there was a risk of fist fights, trampling, riot, methyl alcohol, police raids, and sexual assault, but one would at least not be impaled by darts. I was always meeting people who wanted me to join a fencing club (it must have been my crew cut; no one ever accused me of coordination) but here one had a choice. I could see myself with a duelling scar, but not with a sieve over my face. Besides, I was shown how to fake a scar with collodion.
If I were thirty again and going to South Africa for a first time, I would try to learn one of the Bantu languages. The Black TV channels in the Republic have many White viewers, who are able, if that is what they want, to pick up the language without having to consort with the speakers. It is a minor tragedy for the U.S., and time may prove it a major one, that the raising of Black consciousness in the sixties did not result in the widespread study of proper African languages, or their introduction into the curricula. Swahili is an Arabic creole, and surely there is no point in exchanging the language of one set of slavers for that of another.
As soon as I had a minimal competence, astute friends introduced me to the poems of Elisabeth Eybers. It was like reading Louise Bogan in Afrikaans, and I cannot give higher praise. I never met either of English-speaking Southern Africa's Great Ladies of Literature, and I am afraid that, however offensive and however little their fault, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing must be described that way. They have become to the well-meaning what Pearl Buck used to be. I did, however, through the purest happenstance, meet the ex-husbands. The early short stories of both women are wonderful. The late novels of the one are about Patty Hearst, although the author seems not to have made the identification; the science fiction of the other is somewhere between Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and Louella Parsons.
In her diaries, Anne Morrow (Lindbergh), writing of her fiance, records the following: "He has become a kind of slop bowl for everyone's personal dreams and ideals." South Africa has become a slop jar for the pseudo-self-abasement of the White world and the very real envy of the Black. As the country produces contents of its own, I have tried not to add to the slops. It is as meaningless to criticize the Republic as to praise God and Mother, and about as efficacious.
As in Puerto Rico, a time came when I would have to go or stay. I returned to the U.S. on an American Enterprise passenger freighter. This time the trip was only seventeen days, and the passenger complement was filled. One of our number was the widow of a wealthy Pasadena florist, and Pasadena florists can of course be very wealthy indeed. "I have six boxes of colored slides," she told us at dinner the first night out. "All sunsets." We bribed the steward to tell her the projector was broken.
I arrived, inadequately prepared, in the U.S. of trampolines, ducktail haircuts, and Rock around the Clock. I cursed myself for not becoming a derelict outside Vereeniging (I am willing to learn banjo), and within eighteen months had sailed for Europe on the motor ship Kinderdijk, out of New Orleans. Corrupted by my reading, I wanted to see Lübeck, a gambling resort and/or spa, Davos, and the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Corrupted by my listening, I wanted to see any ski resort associated with the composition of operas about women without shadows, and every opera house in Europe. I would have liked to see the frühe moderne architecture of Berlin, but assumed it had been flattened, and would have liked to see Yasnaya Polyana, but not badly enough to brave the Soviet Union in March.
I sailed up the Scheldt, like Lohengrin; I saw Lübeck, Wiesbaden (a kill of two birds with one stone), the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and a great many opera houses, whose summer closings had dictated my schedule. I did not make it into consumption country, but in Garmisch I had a lovely lagniappe. In the garden of his villa backed up against the Alp of the Alpine Symphony, I saw, as a portly gentleman of sixty, the very noisy baby of the Domestic Symphony.
My favorite sights in London do not and do make the guidebooks. The obscurity is W. S. Gilbert's magnificent house in Harrington Gardens, which looks more Flemish than anything in Flanders. The other is Cullinan I in the royal sceptre. It amused me to see by how many factors the bauble of the burgers exceeds that of the maharajahs, the Kohinoor, in the crown of the Queen Mother. The small crown of Queen Victoria was on display, evoking for me her cast-iron presence beside the House of Parliament in Cape Town. On leaving the Wakefield Tower I realized that I was in Tower Gardens, where the crew of Conrad's Narcissus broke up. Not without effort, I made it to Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper ripped, and to Limehouse, which, after postwar reconstructions, is not so much Broken Blossoms as The Shape of Things to Come. What remains of the bad old days is, I am happy to tell you, wonderfully sinister. The route lies out West India Dock Road, which I could not have resisted in any event.
In pubs, open fireplaces and coal grates alarmed me as badly as dart boards, but needlessly. The British are too inhibited even to get up and poke the fire. Perhaps they have baked their brains. They go to the theatre mainly to applaud. It is one of rather few forms of self-expression which they have, perfidy being another.
I went to Ocean Dock in Southampton, to see where the Titanic sailed from, but except for this excursion did not leave London. Mayfair has impeccable potted-palm music. To hear Roses of Picardy in that setting is to forgive much. On the continent I had played a little game with myself. If, at dinner, I could identify every number the musicians played, I would treat myself to an after-dinner drink.
I fled Europe after a June snowstorm in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I occupied Sonja Henie's bedroom at the Alpenhof, as a photograph and a caption warned me. I admire Froken Henie, who contrived to die in midair on a transatlantic flight, panicking tax collectors on two continents.
I returned on SS France, the last of the superliners. The terminal at Le Havre built for the Normandie served for the newer ship. The portals did not line up, but may have not for Normandie. The French, as any librarian will tell you, can never do anything the same way twice. Their model—one would say archetype—is the German Big Bertha, the seventy-five-mile cannon whose barrel wore so fast that each shell had to be larger in diameter than its predecessor.
SS France is now SS Norway, and, on half of her engine capacity, fuel-efficiently cruises the Caribbean. Why the world's largest ship was thought suitable for the world's smallest harbors is something the owners of lighters and passenger launches will have to speak to.
At home push had come to shove. Public librarians in the American Library Association were already flagellating themselves over library service to illiterates, something I regard as on the same level with Death-of-God theology. Let them read cake. What are video parlors for? In September 1962, I went to work for Emory University in Atlanta, and will retire there year after next. It is a decision with which, after twenty-six years, I have no quarrel. Europe, whatever I say, had been productive. I completed the poems that "top up," as the filling-station attendants say, my first collection, Watchboy, What of the Night? published by Wesleyan University Press in 1966, and Emory has been what I intended it to be, productive. It has been what I have had instead of Caroline Balestier (Kipling) or Pauline DeAhna (Strauss), although I am no longer sure it approaches their intelligence.
Atlanta is a city which believes that only God can make a tree, but only Frederick Law Olmsted knew where to put one. Why have I spent my life in garden-club towns. Shrubbery and blind corners have surely caused more fatal traffic accidents than drunken driving and nonfastened seat belts in tandem. If I had not seen Pretoria in jacaranda season I might think more highly of dogwood time in Atlanta. Many people think it looks like Kyoto, but to me it looks like an explosion in the Handi-Wipe factory. In my childhood, I did not think highly of white wisteria, white crape myrtle, or white lilacs. Dirty Kleenex is dirty Kleenex. The jacaranda trees raise into the morning sky the sky of evening, and after rain confirm on the sidewalk Chicken Little.
As from Pretoria, one would have to get away. At the earliest opportunity I moved from the university neighborhood to the Hillbrow of the midtown. The first building I lived in, on Lombardy Way, put me in mind of a Reader's Digest piece I should write: "Call Girls Make Good Neighbors." They do. Their work is elsewhere, and the last thing they want is attention-attracting rowdiness. I had the heated pool to myself, and could swim—well, paddle—until late in October. The tone dropped sharply when, in the apartment next to me, the police raided a wig thief. Boxes and boxes from Wig Villa were hauled into the corridor. "It's NOT Pink Mist," the thief screamed in self-defense as the colors of the wigs were read out from a manifest. "It's Pink Champagne." The wig he was himself wearing I can describe easily: vegetable henna.
The building to which I removed had problems of its own. During construction the contractors found that the corings had been in error, and that additional fortunes would have to be spent on the foundations. The company went into receivership, and certain amenities, such as heat in the lower lobbies, never eventuated. On consecutive years, when in May the pool was filled for the first time, the bottom ruptured, flooding the storage rooms below. Residents lost furniture, clothing, pictures, and convertible tops. The litigation is still going on. The next year the water tank on the roof failed, flooding fourteen floors of apartments on the northeast corner of the building. Then a water main on West Peachtree burst. People came home to the parking decks to find their cars underwater to the level of the roofs. The fatal fires, of which there were three, took place only after I left. The building now has a pagoda roof and is converting to luxury condos. If I had any principles I would picket it.
Nor was the morality an improvement over Lombardy Way. Ten days after I moved in the vice squad closed a sex club on the eighteenth floor. This pie-in-the-sky was the fantasy of—beautifully—a couple named Breedlove, who had franchises going in Florida and in California. It is still not clear to me what was to franchise, sex being do-it-yourself if anything is. The Breedloves, however, dealt with a mimeographed list of sexual preferences, some of which were most specialized, and would try to match up complementary urges. They did their mimeographing in a basement room rented from the management, which, in a mimeographed notice, denied knowledge. It was somewhat before the period when people liked to think of themselves as swingers, and for weeks afterward, in the elevators, no one would press a button for any floor above ten.
My neighborhood bar was the Piccolo, franchised to the restaurant next door, Mama Mia. Mama herself would have been an ornament on Boardinghouse Row. At the end of the business day she stashed her cash in the kitchen in the oven. One evening Mama forgot to turn off the gas and the take ignited. She was screaming and chasing bills about the room like a demented lepidopterist in pursuit of flaming butterflies, which her clientele presently became. Mama herself knew a learning experience when she saw one. She became Atlanta's arson queen, the bête rouge of insurance adjusters.
In 1981, thirty years after I was in the Caribbean the first time, as a student of twenty-two, I came to Cartagena, the Queen of the Indies. Having been the world's desire, the extraordinary old city lazes by the warm sea like a very old jewel-studded tortoise—one that knew Captain Cook socially—"in el casco." The walls could accommodate a chariot race. Mainly the city made me defensive about the provincial, easy, undesired San Juan of long ago. Barranquilla is Baton Rouge.
If my life as presented seems to you a discontinuity of airport security checks and chain motels you are wrong. It has had more continuity than most. Let us say it has been a chromatic scale. I still see occasionally friends with whom I went to elementary school, fifty-five years ago, and I see with some frequency friends with whom I went to junior high school, forty-five years ago. I am in contact with friends from every period and every locale I have survived. It is more than possible, though, that I am in the last generation of those who will know what it is to have lifelong friends. The mobility of the society is against it, and the drive to presentism. Presentism is if anything a worse affliction on writing than on historiography. Anyone who has taught composition knows that the students' idea of a short story is something about people who have known one another three days at a beach, nor is their youth an extenuation. Mann completed Buddenbrooks at the age of twenty-five.
You probably think that at this point I am going to launch an attack on the sixties. I am not. I rather enjoyed the sixties, although not as much as I have enjoyed the I-told-you-so. I decided early that the counterculture had more to do with the desire of manufacturers and advertisers to sell clothing than with ideology, and that, like the dance madness of the middle ages, it would pass, leaving lots of unemployable young people and a rich, widespread selection of new diseases. I did not foresee that the dears would come up with a 100 percent fatal venereal disease, but maybe that's the way Ages of Aquarius are.
I was living in Atlanta's midtown during the high period. I would say that at the absolute outside there were sixty full-time, live-in hippies, all of whom, jerking and twitching, eventually sought employment at Emory Library. The mobs on the strip on Saturdays were weekend hippies. I would see them park their cars (license plates from the suburban counties), take off their shirts and/or bras, put on their beads, muss their hair, and make the scene. If forced to choose, I would pick hippies over yuppies. They do not jog. Do I impute a dance madness to the wrong group?
No one lost less sleep over Vietnam than I did. If I could have managed to stay out of combat, and I suspect I could have, I would have enjoyed myself. At worst, I could have read Pierre Loti. The outrage of the draft resisters seemed to me rather selective, but outrage usually is, and the selectivity was certainly no news to a former South African civil servant.
I have a reputation for cranking out exotica, and I suppose anyone can see from my poems that I am a man who pursues his own interests. But, without really planning to, I have mounted a campaign that has taught me as much about heartland America as the disciples of Walt Whitman and Dr. Williams can claim to know. For more than thirty-five years I have been making transcontinental automobile trips. Motel Row is darkest burgerdom, and no one knows it better than I do. You will learn more about America by sitting two hours in the cocktail lounge of any Holiday Inn than by reading all of De Toqueville, and you will have a more enjoyable learning experience. Do I deliberately set out to stalk material for poems? Yes, of course. Inner space exists to be supplied. Familiar as I am with human treachery, I certainly would not depend on the deeps of my psyche to fuel what I hope will be a sixty-year career. Its very delight would be to fail you when you most needed it. All the psyche can dependably do is act as a pilot light. Arranging fuel for the main blaze is a logistic problem like any other.
In my pursuit of the future as envisioned in 1932 I come nowhere closer than in Houston. To drive the expressway that parallels the sixty-story wall of skyscrapers that face on Louisiana Street is to live fifteen chapters of a Buster Crabbe serial between two exits. The Transco Tower on Post Oak Road rises as from the Plain of Shinar.
In the lounge of the Warwick Hotel I overheard the essential Houston conversation. It involved the proper method for the setting of an eight-carat diamond. "It was so heavy the prawngs wouldn't hold it," said the owner, "no matter how much they bent them in. They had to make this little platinum jacket faw it." The owner looked as Jean Harlow might have at sixty. I tell the story with a sneer, because Johannesburg does not regard any stone under twenty carats as a topic of conversation, and because Johannesburg knows that the place for platinum is in catalytic converters. No one has done more for the South African economy than the abominable Ralph Nader.
On the menu at the Warwick is smoked quail, and on the menu at the Cattle Guard is barbecued quail. The Cattle Guard, a restaurant on Milam Street whose parking lot is shaded by umbrella chinas (and no more efficient shade tree exists; sunlight that is feathered can only whisper, like the serpent . . .). The Cattle Guard, I say, should be a compulsory stop for every Houston visitor, especially Rust Belt academics. Like scores of places in Tulsa and Rapid City and Cheyenne and Flagstaff it is the locus of people who are exactly where and what they want to be. Was any academic, Plato least of all, ever where and what he wanted to be? Not bloody likely. It will be the punishment in Hell of ambitious academics to have the response of Paul Kruger to the envoy, a belted earl, who preceded his credentials with a long list of titles. "Really," said Oom Paul. "I was a shepherd."
At the end is California, where I impose on the hospitality of old friends and mend my literary fences. In 1980 I had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Jimmy Carter was in the White House; there had been criticism of the previous year's awards for being geographically skewed. I do not think that my Georgia address did me harm. Any fool could see that the criticized awards had been demographically dead on the mark, but none of us in the boonies is about to tell. I took the money and streaked for Palo Alto.
In Mountain View I had an apartment in an "executive relocation facility" where Silicon Valley types could take furnished efficiencies on short-term lease. My balcony faced down Moffett Boulevard toward Hangar Number One at Moffett Field, and do not think my choice was accidental. As soon as the miraculous California reversal of the midday heat sent me for the late-afternoon sweater, I would pour a drink, prop up my feet on the balcony rail, and wait for the Macon to come in. Since, like those who believe in the existence of Tinker Bell, I had faith, it not infrequently came. With the hangar to give the scale, there was no problem. The great silver shape, "than a storm more vast," hovered just at the edge of vision. If the herald came nearer I knew exactly what to say. "Du Bote aller Boten . . . Gibt es kein Hinüber? Sind wir schon da?" There is nothing Freudian in any of this. It was the Akron my father lifted me out of bed to see. I was three years old.
Popular Mechanics could never decisively make up its mind about the automobile of the future, but leaned toward a teardrop design. I was having none of that, and the magazine should have let well enough alone, as it was publishing at the zenith of classic design. The sight of sixteen Dusenbergs side by side at Harrah's display in Reno came as near to wrecking my mind as the sight of a BOAC Comet I taking off from Jan Smuts Airport. The streets of my future are no Way of Tears, unless they be those of the abominable Ralph Nader.
In the first fuel crisis, in 1973, I found I was miles from work without particularly good bus connections. My next-door neighbor in my high rise was an alcoholic who was a chain-smoker. It seemed a good time to move. I bought a condominium in Decatur and, within a few years, had to serve as president of the condominium association.
It was like inheriting a banana republic: God's punishment on me for playing the Lord of Creation in the colonies all those years. People are only very minimally gifted at living in society. There ought to be an equivalent of the Tarzan myth for those of us who dislike nature. There is: Howard Hughes. But who of us has the income to act it out. As if searching for one good man in Sodom, we tried repeatedly to find a solution to the problem of parking, pets, and children. After tears at bedtime, seasickness in the bunks above me, knees and elbows, call girls, wig thieves, Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove, and Noah's Flood these irritations did not seem to me great, but others have not had my experience. Children grow up; for pets we purchased a "Pooper-Scooper," the details of which you do not wish to know; and parking? You have it with you always. Each of our units has covered parking for two cars (I am myself a two-car family of one; anything to spite the Abominable); it was visitor parking that reduced us to savagery. By and by the difficulty partially solved itself. We became so unpleasant that nobody came to see us.
I learned in Africa, however, that there is a great difference between the least society and no society. Those trekking Afrikaners who felt crowded if they could see their neighbors' smoke assembled quarterly for a communion service, and religion was not its only function. It made exogamy possible. In the most contentious condo there is a nostalgia, perhaps unrecognized, for the life of a small town, although for those of us who grew up in small towns, the idea of a global village is frightening. Most of the world's present problems are due to that well-known small-town vice, meddling. When we say good-bye, that is, God be with you, we indicate that we do not regard God as company in the fullest sense, and any parent will tell you that small children are not company in the fullest sense.
Art is, or it can be, hence the high proportion of artists who are unmarried. I phase out when aspiring poets say to me, "I want to write about relationships." In forty years I have seen no evidence that they have the willingness or the ability to create characters to have the relationships. It is not altogether their fault. They have no models. The English lyric is too relentlessly first person and too relentlessly centered on the internal. As in Patience, one might almost mistake it for indigestion. The possibility that poetry might deal with settings and characters as well as drama or fiction is alien. For those who wish to put the emotion or the act or the image directly on the page—an impossibility; ink is all one can put on the page—the very word medium must be offensive, as it denotes something that intervenes. I find a demanding medium liberating rather than otherwise. The more secure the technique the wider range of subjects I am prepared to deal with. Few poems I read, however, have a subject. Flaubert wanted to write about nothing. Poets do. But Un coeur simple is not about nothing. It is about the passage of time. When I returned to Camp Tortuguero after twenty years I realized that if I had waited five years more it would have taken a professional archaeologist to identify anything. When I returned to South Africa after twenty years I found it, rich and uncontrite, but unsegregated to a degree I would not have believed possible in 1967. There is a sense in which, like Félicité's parrot, one's past, if it can be preserved at all, is a triumph of taxidermy, but meter is one thing which can put life into it. It is a heartbeat.
It seemed to me when I came to Emory University that it was a rather good second-line university which taught English and history and math and premed. I am sure that, mummied in the tatters of interdisciplinary studies, interdisciplinary centers, centers for the study of war, centers for the study of peace, and centers for the study of centrism, there is still a rather good second-line university which teaches English and history and math and premed. We could not get from one day to the next if that were not true. But unfortunately the university received a great deal of money, and sinks ever deeper into the abysm of relevance and good works. As I near retirement it appalls me to think how much effort has gone into charades which have nothing whatever to do with education as I understand it. Let me say first that I do not consider "learning experiences" education. If you make up an alphabet, that can be a learning experience, and, possibly, can transfer. If you learn an alphabet already in use, that is education. Education is the sum of other people's learning experiences. Voter-registration drives, the last gasp of elitism, can teach you things. Not, probably, those you wish to learn. It was the nineteenth century that understood how to get people to the polls: buy them liquor.
In the seventies, when rapid transit was going to deliver us from the social evils of the automobile and bring about the millennium, Atlanta neighborhood coalitions blocked construction of an expressway. The university, as the university, took no part in the maneuvering, nor should it have taken part, as none of the land is contiguous to the campus. Having been eminent domained, the land was cleared, and after long disuse, became a kudzu-cum-hobo jungle.
In the eighties, some of the land was designated as the site of the Carter Center, whose relationship to Emory University would make some of the arrangements in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy seem simplistic. The Department of Transportation, under a mostly imaginary pressure to get mostly imaginary visitors to the center, revived the expressway plan, expanding it to include a widening of Ponce de Leon Avenue through the Olmsted parks. Doers of good on the faculty picked up the Sword of Righteousness. Various city planners had suggested earlier that the land might be turned into a park, and the "Great Park" concept became to the anti-expressway contingent what the League of Nations was to Woodrow Wilson. From very early they began to speak of it, to think of it, as if it already existed. I have never seen reality more rapidly abandoned. The amenities, the benefits of the Great Park became as real as the Fourteen Points.
Nothing is sillier than the notion that architecture and landscape are somehow capable of improving people. The briefest visit to a public-housing project, or, for that matter, to a country club, will demonstrate that they are not. Nothing is sillier, except a notion that architecture and landscape which do not even exist can accomplish the same thing.
Pursuing one of the Fourteen Points of the eighties, that everything must somehow be or become political (Are my poems political? Only when they deal with politicians), the well-meaning forced the university into the issue, although it was no more contiguous to the Great Park, nor to the Olmsted parks, than it had been before. Druid Hills Country Club, which is contiguous, took no position, and felt no need to. It was a nonissue. For a solid year the university was paralyzed for the sake of a few ditches and a few trees, and by the same people who would think nothing of running an unsightly escalator up the grand staircase of the Paris Opera to allow access to the halt and the lame. Before I would see that happen I would form an International Richard Widmark Society to push the handicapped over precipices. I suggested that the entire area in controversy be flooded and stocked with snail darters, but no one was amused. We are in the grip of Sentimental-Pastoral, the worst outbreak of it since the romantic poets. The original environmental-impact statement was, "What God had joined together let no man put asunder," and it was wrong. After seventy-five years Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal look much more natural than the River Nile, and are. What is natural about a river that runs two thousand miles through the middle of a desert? The Nile exists, but so does pregnancy, and as a friend of mine said to her sentimental obstetrician, "Doctor, what is natural about walking around with another person inside of you?"
The rending of garments and the lacerating of the flesh is still going on, but the Carter Center was built, and much resembles the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The only persons to emerge with credit were the judge who ruled that land eminent domained for one purpose cannot be used for another without offering it back to the original owners at the original price, and Jimmy Carter himself, who, in a case where it was clearly called for, took the position of Pontius Pilate. Everything is political? Not while there are silver salvers around it it isn't.
No one who travels as much as I do deeply, sincerely believes that the bluebird of happiness is in his own backyard. You would not either if you had to live in a place where the emotional climax of the year is a dogwood festival. But just as it appeared that, on retirement, I should have to go for the sake of my aesthetic well-being to the proletarian glories of Stockton and Bakersfield, wicked capitalism came across and Atlanta built the IBM Tower, a skyscraper that in terms of "Come, let us make a name" is exceeded only by the Chrysler Building itself. In spite of its beauty it is to me as the Gorgon, because I cannot keep my eyes off of it, it is visible from all over town, and it is going to cause me to wreck my car. As the owners light it up like a world's fair, it is reassuring to know that it is permanent, although at my age permanence is relative. A Century of Progress ran for two years, which is longer than presidencies and pontificates I could name.
For many years I was a periodicals librarian, a position which gave me a unique insight into the grandeur and the triviality of American civilization. There is no profession, no cult, no hobby, no religion, no business, no political persuasion, no sickness, no perversion, no domestic animal, no sport, no school of poetry which does not have its newsletter or house organ. I learned early to respect those which, however loony, keep their billing, subscription lists, and voluming in order. I have to tell you that academic publications are the worst offenders. Naturally. Their authors and editors are busy defending ditches, in whatever meaning you wish to understand the term. Of only slightly less concern to those persons than the benefits of landscape is that burning question, "What did the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company mean to Wallace Stevens?" I can answer. Wallace Stevens's job meant to him exactly what mine has meant to me: everything, since it is what made everything else possible.
If your message to the world is "Thou Fool" you are not going to be the most popular poet around, especially if you say it in meter. Thou Fool is in fact a perfect iamb. No, it is not a spondee. If a lifetime of writing in meter has taught me anything it is that spondees do not exist. One always comes down on one side or the other, as rarely in life. I may be unfashionable, but no more unfashionable than I was forty years ago.
Psychiatrists, whose profession is to point out the obvious, observe that Hitler's paintings contain no people, only buildings. They could make the same charge against this sketch. Well, Hitler was a perfectly competent watercolorist, and what my life has taught me is, Hitler was not uniquely evil. He was routinely evil. Unless we face that, nothing can be done. People are no damned good. One can react to Calvin's aperçu by crawling into the corner of a box and assuming a fetal position, like the figure in the Steig cartoon, or, in the words of the seldom-photographed Elizabeth Daryush, "go out to elemental wrong." If you elect to go, go all the way.
Like an ever-lengthening orbit, the passage of years bears one farther from his focus, or nearer to it. One cannot speak of the focus of an ellipse. It has two. The outer sweep of the fifties—mine, not the century's—jetted me south across the River Maritza (Servus, Gräfin), out over the Black Sea, and straight down the Bosporus. At the last moment, as we turned for the airport, Byzantium disappeared in its own smoke.
In the early evening, showered and Turkish-towelled, I went out on the top-floor terrace of the Istanbul Sheraton, looked across the Golden Horn, and there it was: the Planet Mongo—every pinnacle, every parapet, every flattened dome. Every desirable thing in our unconscious actually exists, and needs only to be sought out. Something put it there, did it not?
I watched for a long time; it grew dark; and as the first rocket ship landed beside the galleys in from the Sweet Waters of Asia, I went to bed. In two days I would have to leave for those other planets—dual planets?—Budapest and Vienna.
Another year, another transit. A few days before Christmas, and I am in Honolulu. Keeping a promise I made to myself decades earlier, when I saw the Lurline sail under the Golden Gate Bridge for the Farallones, I am staying at the Royal Hawaiian, in the neon heart of unspoiled Waikiki. A display in a corridor off the lobby commemorates the opening of the hotel in 1927. It has menus, a setting of the original china, and a selection of photographs. Among the beachboys is Buster Crabbe. It seemed wholly fitting that Flash Gordon grew up in a Territory—a colony—beside the warm sea, out of which all life emerges. Another photo is Norma Talmadge, on one of her honeymoons. My mother never remarried. The banyan tree in the court brings depressing images of sages and saints, but the palm trees on Kalakaua Avenue curve out to sea like a row of very large but very discreet asterisks. The profile of Diamond Head is familiar from elsewhere. I know it is hollow, the outcrop, but I can pretend.
I was the adored only child of young, intelligent, middle-class parents and of grandparents whose means I inherited at an early age and have managed well for almost fifty years. Poetically, I was very talented, and my training was the best. There is no secret to success in poetry or in life. All that is necessary is to be dealt the high trumps.
5 August 1988
POSTSCRIPT: Turner Cassity contributed the following update in 2004:
At rising seventy-five (and five years after the publication of The Destructive Element, two after the publication of No Second Eden) I find I write neither more nor less than formerly, nor, I daresay, either better nor worse. Apparently my methods are dependable. Kind friends will say mechanical. I pick a subject and see what I can do with it, enabling me to say that I do not write about nothing, which seems to be the preferred method of many of my contemporaries and all of my juniors.
Unlike Igor Stravinsky, who, the moment Arnold Schönberg was dead, took up serial composition, I am not in some sort of outliving contest, and no death is going to convert me to free verse. Indeed, I take this opportunity to tell my fellow formalists what I have learned from the teaching I have done in retirement. It is not rhyme and meter to which present-day readers object; it is the end-stopping which usually accompanies them. It impresses as, understandably, foursquare, or, to use the generation's own term of derogation, square, although, given the current state of mathematical knowledge, I am not sure they know a square has four sides. Philip Larkin, who manipulates his medium with extraordinary subtlety, they like. Less understandable is their notion of what is conversational. A poem whose idiom seems to me completely conversational—no archaisms, no inversions, no far-out vocabulary—does not qualify if there is no one there to do the conversing. Writing in the third person seems to be at risk, perhaps as a result of class, race, and gender politics. Is it hard to be strident in the third person?
Teaching has also taught me that videocams, performance art, and "film" courses will not, as I had hoped, siphon off the ungifted who are determined to express themselves.
Well, I can write in the first person as well as any, in prose at least.
After twenty-nine years in various positions, I retired from Emory University Library in January, 1991. In order to feel retired conclusively, I left at once for three months in San Francisco. 1991 was a good time to be there, after AIDS and before dot.com, when the city's grip on reality was firmer than usual. I had been there in 1981, when unreality was at its height. Passing a bank of pay phones in the Sheraton Palace I heard a speaker say, loud and clear, "Well what did you expect me to do? Have him paged in the Orgy Room?" "Paged in the Orgy Room" would be a great title for a poem, but I am afraid my art is not equal to it. Two years later, when I was again in the city, I remember thinking it must have been like this in Berlin in 1933. Suddenly there were reasons not to do what you had always done and not to see those whom you had always seen.
At the end of 1991 I was on a cruise that took me to Puerto Rico for the first time in nearly twenty years, forty after I had been there in the military. It was not a good time to be in San Juan. There is something especially unappealing about urban sprawl on a small island. In December I received a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Yes, Turner; there is a Santa Claus.
A trip to Morocco in 1994 provided evidence that Hollywood's Morocco is Morocco. Sand dunes and shadowed souks. The cities made me realize that Marshall Lyautey and the other French governors were pioneers of the smart growth movement, although the medina in Fez indicates that population density can be carried too far. Djma al Fna, the snakecharmers' square in Marrakesh, is Bourbon Street without the liquor. Earphone channels on Moroccan airliners offer three choices: Western music, Moroccan music, and Koranic recitations. Allah flies with Air Maroc.
Other travel has carried me to Manaus and the Amazon (to see the opera house, not the rain forest; I grew up in Mississippi, and certainly do not have to go to Brazil to see swamps and alligators). A Mediterranean cruise and a Baltic cruise took me into unfamiliar territory. If the climate were better I think I would prefer the Hanseatic world to the Classical, although Sicily is enough like California to please me. The Greek temples there never got around to putting up friezes, meaning that they look less like Doric comic strips. Stockholm is surprisingly grandiose. One imagines the motivation was to impress the Danes, Norwegians, Finns, and Russians. rather than the locals, who seem a rather phlegmatic lot. Maybe they are still tired from all of that pillage and rapine in Viking times. I might have been more impressed with Athens if I had not seen Istanbul first. The old Ottoman capital lords over the Golden Horn like an Islam resurgent, although I am not persuaded that the Turks are really very serious Moslems. Let's use the superseded spelling. It hints at Westernization, and, after all, the country had both Ataturk and a sultan known as Selim the Sot.
Travel can, as we say, interface with various projects I keep going. I have managed to see fourteen of the Richard Strauss operas fully staged; I have seen thirteen of the major Ibsen plays, including Brand and Peer Gynt. The Ibsen project took fifty years. What a commentary on the American Theatre, and it would have taken me almost as long if I had been willing to jump on a plane and go to New York every time there was a production.
The great moment in Peer Gynt occurs late in the action, when the Troll King reappears, now down on his luck. "Even my own grandchildren," he says, "have decided I am a myth. I am going into the theatre. They are always looking for Folk material." Unless you are Ibsen, Folk (or Pop) Art is for the sophisticated an abyss. Even Kurt Weill, for whom my reverence is well the other side idolatry, in the Cowboy Song in Johnny Johnson, came so close and missed it so far. Aaron Copland and Martha Graham deserve each other. Bartok's researches make you appreciate Liszt and Lehar.
My current project is chasing down Lehar operettas other than The Merry Widow. The fact that he was Hitler's favorite composer should tell us something, though I am not yet sure just what, unless that "Springtime for Hitler" may be less a satire than a document. Like Strauss, Lehar has been criticized for an accommodation to National Socialism. Each had his reasons; the former had half-Jewish grandchildren, the latter a Jewish wife. Can bad people create good art? Yes, fortunately. Otherwise there would be very little good art.
A side effect of the operetta project is that I have to visit operetta country: Central Europe, which I much prefer to Italy or France. The River Arno is about as scenic as the Houston Ship Channel, and my hope is either that Venice will in fact sink, or that the tidal barrier constructions, an engineering Lido, as it were, will be more appealing than the city. For reasons that have nothing to do with James Joyce I like Trieste, but perhaps Trieste is not quite Italy. When I wandered through the interiors of Charlotte (Carlota) and Maximilian's Schloss Miramar the decor kept reminding me of something. Finally it dawned on me what: Chapultapec, which I saw when I was eighteen. I suppose now I should make an effort for Querétaro, where the short-term Emperor was shot, but I do not deal well with altitude, a difficulty that will keep me away from Peru. Ideally, I would acclimatize myself by a year in Johannesburg (alt. 4000), but I am told that Hillbrow, my old neighborhood, which we referred to as a slum of the future, is now a slum of the present.
Berlin is nobody's project but its own, and a rebuke to the cultural pretensions of every other city in the world. The last time I was there I could have seen, within the space of a week, performances at three opera houses, Shakespeare in German, a Broadway musical in English, a Gerhart Hauptmann drama, or a Chekhov play in Russian. I could have heard a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic if I could have been confident of locating my seat in that Cabinet of Dr. Caligari it performs in. In the former East Berlin a surprising number of the famous old "Early Modern" buildings from the 1920s survive.
Meanwhile, back in Georgia, I live where I have lived for thirty years, in a condo to which I have to give as little thought as to a motel room. If God had meant for us to form emotional attachments to real estate He would not have driven us out of Eden. I suppose I should try to respond to the question I am most frequently asked: Why do I not write about the South. The short answer is, others can do it better. Further, Southerners and Southern writers are traditionally long-winded, and the entire thrust of my writing has been toward terseness. Convincing dialect is thought to be a requirement for regionalism, and my suspicion is that very soon the dialect would get in the way of the meter or the meter of the dialect. Eudora Welty, discussing place in fiction, expresses her dislike of what she calls the Isle of Capri novel, a story with an exotic setting and no depth, the author having had no experience of the local society and its mores over time. I assure you I would not write an Isle of Capri poem. I would write a Taormina poem.
Iambic has been my preferred, indeed, exclusive, meter. There is really not much choice, iambic being intrinsic to the nature of the language. As long as we precede nouns with articles and conjugate our verbs with operators it will continue to be, and there is not much that writers who distrust it can do. What can be done, seldom is, with the result that most free verse poems come across as merely failed metrical verse. Syllabic verse must by definition avoid any regularity except the count of syllables, which is why it is so difficult to write. The ground rhythm keeps surfacing.
Pentameter, however, is not inevitable, and its predominance is a puzzle to me. J. V. Cunningham said once that most pentameter consists of four feet of meaning and one foot of padding. Tetrameter tends to become gnomic, but that may be because its models, including Cunningham have been gnomic. Is it necessarily the idiom of Zurich? The work of Louise Bogan, to cite only one example, suggests that it is not. Alexander Pope's denunciation of hexameter is suspiciously self-serving, and I do not honestly think anyone could say that my alexandrines drag a slow length along, which is not to say that they trip along trivially. Pentameter's enthusiasts say that hexameters tend to break in half, but surely any competent metrist can deal with that sort of fragmentation, though I concede that few do. It seems to be felt that pentameter's 2-3 or 3-2 breaks are preferable, as if to avoid rivers in the typesetting. My guess is that pentameter is popular because Shakespeare and other dramatists wrote in it, and if you are speaking from the stage you may well begin to run out of breath in six-foot lines. Shortness of breath has not deterred Racine and his actors, unfortunately. As a matter of fact, I never settle on a measure in advance. I see how the first few lines fall out and go from there.
But it may be that after 125 years of vers libre even formalists are losing the sense of the line as a line. Varying the relation of the sentence to the line is essential if you wish not to write jingles, but if the inner metrist is going flabby there can be no relationship. Meter can maintain a forward motion where there is nothing else to carry the reader ahead, and few poets of any persuasion can now generate an impetus through argument in the rhetorical sense. It was a dark day for the art when rhetoric became a dirty word.
I do not know exactly what is meant by "experimental poetry," but I do know there is nothing that says experiment is bound to succeed. Stanza form is the most unwelcome area of experiment. The evidence is, the best poetry is written in the simplest stanza forms. Thomas Hardy and George Herbert are exceptions; most of Swinburne is the confirmation. Poets whose lines run over insanely will come to a screeching halt at the end of a stanza, as if to treat it as other than a paragraph were unthinkable. I doubt that Hardy spent much time inventing those weird stanzas; probably he took them from Victorian parlor songs. Incidentally, the most commercially successful of Victorian parlor songs, "After the Ball," is written in ordinary quatrains.
Whether there has been a line of development in my own poetry is not for me to say. I may have become more ingenious, but that is not the same thing, and in any event stylistic development may end in something like the late style of Henry James, which is enough to make one pray for early death. My hope is only that I fit the style to the subject. I would not write about a grandiloquent subject—San Simeon, say, or the British Raj—in very short lines, nor a poem about a rune stone in hexameters. Did nineteenth-century poets deliberately distance themselves from the urban industrial or were they too straitjecketed by their style to handle it even if they wanted to? Poetry did not leave behind the pastoral before it was overtaken by the ecological.
I am not going to comment on The-Future-of-Poetry. The future of poetry is the past of poetry and the present of poetry. It is a medium; it should be able to deal with anything prose can deal with. Not, perhaps, abstruse scientific subjects, but prose cannot deal with them either. It takes mathematics. Poetry's advantage in the past has been that it can be in the most literal sense memorable. It is difficult, and mostly unrewarding, to memorize free verse. But nothing could make me happier than to encounter tomorrow a free verse poem so perfected that I should want to memorize it, and could. The Internet is a good thing, in that it will make disposable poetry disposable.
Reviewers have described me as a limited poet. Limited how? The volume of my work by now frightens even me, and the unpredictability of my subjects has always been a source of pride. A limited emotional range? But how could anybody figure that out, as I do not usually write about the emotions, unless Original Sin and Total Depravity count as emotions. Let us say I am a limited universal genius. Science informs us that expensive telescopes can now see the limits of the universe; any fool can see that there are things I am not going to touch with a ten-foot pole.
As no one else has ever called my hand on it, I shall now reward your patience by revealing a trade secret. In every poem of mine in the range of sixteen to twenty-eight lines, I try to see that the caesura falls at least once in every position in which it is possible for it to fall. That is mechanical. You will not have to have a computer of enormous memory to check me; you can do it on your fingers. I do.
It would be nice to say that for my remaining years I have many improving projects, but I grow ever more frivolous. In youth I put off reading Balzac for my middle age; in middle age I put it off for old age. Now I just put it off. I had hoped to learn Greek and read Homer in the original, but my eyesight is not up to it. Besides, the Greeks are out of fashion. A slave society, you know. I may not have had much sense when I was young, but I got the Russian novelists, A la recherche de temps perdu, and Thomas Mann behind me when I was in the Army and had lots of free time. I re-read the other two; Proust I shall not reexamine. I might die before getting to the end of some of those sentences. I should like to get myself together and write a critical piece on the novels of Ivy Compton-Eurnett, to which I am addicted. They are not as much alike as what is said about her is. Reference books, notorious for copying one another, keep describing them as written entirely in dialogue. They aren't, and although the percentage is very high, it varies from title to title.
As to further travel projects, I must face the fact that for some of them the time may have come and gone. As well as I should like to see India, and as sound as my digestion is, I remember that strong men have taken one look at Calcutta and refused to leave the airport. As much as I have enjoyed Spanish America, I seem to have a mental block in regard to the mother country. If I went I should skip the Bilbao Museum and visit Franco's Valley of the Fallen. Having already admitted to a fondness for the architecture of Albert Speer, I could hardly do my reputation further harm. My only interest in a trip to China would be to see if the Great Wall continues beyond the last hill in the vista at Nantao Pass outside Peking—again, let's use the superseded spelling; I am very retro, I still have a rotary dial phone—which is the only view of it ever photographed. Was it all a bluff, like WMD? Rio de Janeiro has never been on my list at all. The very
thought of those mosaic sidewalks makes me dizzy. If I want to see the sine curve I can look at the test pattern on the TV screen. Leo Tolstoy's estate is something like eighty miles outside Moscow. In the U.S. that would be an easy day trip, but one fears that in Russia it would mean freezing overnight in a rural railway station, like the novelist himself on his final one-way trip.
The pretentious speak of inner journeys and inner space, but I hope I am more externalized than that, and more objective. At the conclusion of a reading I gave once, an intense young man protested, "But these poems are full of facts!"
Finally, I should like to add that my poems are not obscure. They are arcane. That is, their facts—their subjects—may be, but I would hope that if the reader has the background information, the writing, as writing, will be seen as straightforward. You have to write about what interests you instead of what bores you. If you bore yourself you will certainly bore everybody else. As of now, I am neither bored nor world-weary, and I have no sense of being written out. I may be deceiving myself, but so many years on it is agreeable even to have the feeling.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 105: American Poets since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 19-24.
Jones, John Griffin, editor, Mississippi Writers Talking, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1983.
Lloyd, James B., editor, Lives of Mississippi Authors,1817-1967, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1981.
Booklist, September 15, 2002, Ray Olson, review of No Second Eden, p. 195.
Chicago Review, winter, 1999, Robert Huddleston, review of The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, p. 98.
Parnassus, fall/winter, 1974.
Poetry, October, 1974; June, 1999, David Yezzi, review of The Destructive Element, p. 160.
Prairie Schooner, spring, 2004, Moore Moran, review of No Second Eden, p. 203.
Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1991, Penny Kaganoff, review of Between the Chains, p. 68.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1974.
Southern Review, winter, 1978.