Allen Porter Mendenhall

Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

Michael Blumenthal Publishes “Just Three Minutes, Please,” with West Virginia University Press

In America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, News and Current Events, News Release, Poetry, Politics, Writing on March 5, 2014 at 8:30 am

Just Three Minutes, Please

West Virginia University Press is pleased to announce the publication of Just Three Minutes, Please: Thinking out Loud on Public Radio, by Michael Blumenthal.

In these brief essays, Blumenthal provides unconventional insights into our contemporary political, educational, and social systems, challenging us to look beyond the headlines to the psychological and sociological realities that underlie our conventional thinking.

What’s wrong with the contemporary American medical system? What does it mean when a state’s democratic presidential primary casts 40% of its votes for a felon incarcerated in another state? What’s so bad about teaching by PowerPoint? What is truly the dirtiest word in America?

These are just a few of the engaging and controversial issues that Michael Blumenthal, poet, novelist, essayist, and law professor, tackles in this collection of poignant essays commissioned by West Virginia Public Radio.

C.K. Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet proclaims that Blumenthal has “The intellect of a scholar, the sensitivity of a poet, the objectivity of a professor of law: it hardly seems possible that so many virtues can be embodied in one book of short talks.”

Dalton Delan, Executive Producer of In Performance at the White House for PBS, declares: “David Sedaris and Ira Glass have a brother from another mother, and his name is Michael Blumenthal. His soulful NPR essays are profound thought-clouds from one of America’s finest poets.”

As a widely published poet and novelist, Blumenthal brings along a lawyer’s analytical ability with his literary sensibility, effortlessly facilitating a distinction between the clichés of today’s pallid political discourse and the deeper realities that lie beneath. This collection will captivate and provoke those with an interest in literature, politics, law, and the unwritten rules of our social and political engagements.

Michael Blumenthal is a Visiting Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Immigration Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law. A former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University, he is the author of eight books of poetry, as well as All My Mothers and Fathers, a memoir; Weinstock Among The Dying, a novel; When History Enters the House, a collection of essays; and “Because They Needed Me”: The Incredible Struggle of Rita Miljo To Save The Baboons of South Africa, a book-length account of his work with orphaned infant chacma baboons in South Africa. His first collection of short stories, The Greatest Jewish-American Lover in Hungarian History, is forthcoming.

To order this book, visit wvupress.com, phone (800) 621-2736, or visit a local bookstore.

Just Three Minutes, Please: Thinking out Loud on Public Radio by Michael Blumenthal
March 2014 / 120pp / PB 978-1-938228-77-3: $16.99/ ePub 978-1-938228-78-0: $16.99

Allen Mendenhall Interviews James Elkins about Law, Literature, Poetry, and Teaching

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, John William Corrington, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 26, 2014 at 8:30 am
Jim Elkins

James Elkins

AM:  Jim, thank you for doing this interview.  You recently came out with a book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You’ve been researching and writing about lawyer poets for some time now.  What is it about lawyer poets that fascinates you, and what is it about this type of person that makes him or her unique?  In other words, what makes a lawyer poet different from a doctor poet like, say, William Carlos Williams, or a banker poet like T.S. Eliot?

JE:  I first got interested in lawyer poets about 12 years ago when I was introduced to the work of a southern writer, John William Corrington. I found Corrington’s life and work fascinating, and was puzzled by the fact that he was an accomplished poet—as well as a novelist—when he took up the study and practice of law. I had trouble getting my mind around the fact that Corrington was a poet and a lawyer. One reason was that I held some of the usual stereotypes of lawyer and poet. These endeavors—poetry and law—don’t look, at least according to the stereotypes, as if they have much in common. Lawyers and poets appear to us as different as day and night. I was intrigued by this idea of one person embracing such different—or seemingly different—endeavors. When I decided to write about Corrington, I knew I needed to think through this idea of being a lawyer and a poet, a poet and a lawyer.

My fascination with lawyer poets lies in how our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law. There is, I think, something intriguing about the joining of such differing enterprises in the life of a single person. I don’t want to claim that there is anything unique about lawyer poets, or that the joining of law and poetry creates a unique kind of person. What is unique is how the idea of a lawyer poet changes our sense of who we are as lawyers (that is, those of us who are associated with the legal profession), and how, when our legal colleagues turn out to be poets, we have an open invitation to read their poetry, and for many of us, that means a pursuit of a genre of literature we thought we had no need to pursue.Lawyer Poets

AM: I want to come back to Corrington in a minute.  He’s someone I’ve grown to admire, and I have you to thank for introducing me to his work.  First, though, I’d like to discuss your book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You published several lawyer poets in it.  How did you decide which poets and poems to include? 

JE:  I discovered the work of all the lawyer poets whose poems appear in Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law during the decade that I tried to identify all the lawyer poets in the U.S., from the first days of the republic. It got to be something a bit more than a research project. I simply wanted to know every lawyer I could identify throughout our history that had taken up with the muse. Along the way, I began to collect a rather substantial list of contemporary lawyers who write and publish poetry. I started reading the poetry and then began to publish the best of what I found in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal I’ve edited for over 15 years now. I might note that most lawyer poets do not write poems about the law and the practice of law and I did not seek out law-related poems. We have a long history of legal verse and most of it is rather bad. What I found in the work of the lawyer poets I was publishing was an occasional poet and an occasional poem about the practice of law that sounded right to me. After publishing the work of lawyer poets for a decade, I found, looking back on what we had published, that the lawyer-related poems held up quite well. And, I found that they looked still more interesting when they were collected and laid out poem to poem. It dawned on me that I had published the best lawyer-related poems in the past 50 years, and that the poems deserved their own anthology.

AM:  One of the poets in the anthology is Michael Blumenthal.  Is he still teaching at West Virginia University College of Law?  I don’t think I ever heard the story about how you two connected.

JE:  When I first got started on the lawyer poets work, I was corresponding with Marlyn Robinson, a reference librarian at the Tarleton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. Marlyn compiled a short list of lawyer poets for me, and she mentioned that a poet named Michael Blumenthal, who was then living in or around Austin, had once been a lawyer.

Blumenthal was one of those lawyers, like Archibald MacLeish and John William Corrington, who become lawyers and then realize that what they really want to do is to follow their literary pursuits. I began reading Blumenthal’s poetry and it became clear that he was by no one’s estimation an amateur. In fact, his poetry was so good and his abandonment of the legal profession so apparent, that I didn’t try to connect him for fear that as a major poet he would have little interest in being identified as having any association with the legal profession. And to complicate matters, whenever I did give thought to contacting Blumenthal, I found that he was a poet who seemed to have no permanent home.

I continued to read Blumenthal’s poetry, and then moved on to a collection of his essays, a novel, and a memoir. There is, I think, something rather daunting, at least for me, in trying to contact a major writer. Then, one day, I was working with a Canadian writer on an introduction to a memoir of Roma Goodwin Blackburn, a Canadian lawyer, when she happened to mention Michael Blumenthal. I asked her how she knew him, and she said she had recently corresponded with him to obtain permission to quote one of his poems in a book she was writing with her husband. I told her that I had been wanting to contact Blumenthal but could never quite track him down (not adding that I hadn’t really tried all that hard). She told me he responded to her request promptly and seemed a pleasant enough fellow.

If I have the time right, that was probably in 2005. I sent off a note to Blumenthal and found not only that he was pleasant but seemed interested in the fact that I had found my way to his poetry by way of the fact that he had once been a lawyer. We continued our correspondence, and I decided to devote an issue of the Legal Studies Forum to Michael’s work.

In 2007, we published Correcting the World, an issue of over 440 pages of Michael’s poetry, essays, and fiction. Michael had not, in 2007, when we published the LSF issue devoted to his work, fully addressed, in any of his writings, his decision to leave the legal profession and take up his life as a literary man. I asked if he’d be willing to do that in an essay for the LSF issue, and to my surprise he agreed to do the essay. I talked the powers that be at the law school into inviting Michael to the law school to present his essay, “The Road Not Taken-Twice.”

At this point I still had not met Michael, although we had been working on the LSF collection of his writings for over a year. Michael’s presentation was quite engaging, and it dawned on me that we needed a stronger literary presence at the law school than I was able to provide; what we needed was a poet-in-residence. And now, the delicate part: Would Michael have any interest in thinking about a visiting appointment at the law school? I knew that he was moving from university to university as something of an itinerant professor holding endowed visiting positions, and I thought we might interest him in a stop at the law school. To my surprise, he seemed intrigued by the idea, and the next thing I knew, Michael Blumenthal was a visiting professor at the college of law. He has now been a colleague for several years, and I’m now even more convinced that every law school needs a lawyer poet in residence.

AM:  Do you ever try your hand at poetry?  I’ve found that, for me, it’s hard to read a lot of poetry without trying to write it myself. 

JE:  I will have to admit that I am not a poet. And yes, there are times, when I’m reading poetry, that I imagine that in some reincarnation I will end up, somewhere down the line, as a poet. I’ve written a few poems, and I’ve written just enough to know that poetry requires experience and skill that I do not have. I admire the poets I read enough to know that I need to leave poetry to those who are driven or led, in some way, to be poets. My friend and colleague, James Clarke, a rather prolific poet and retired judge in Canada, has encouraged me to write poetry but I take his suggestion to be a gesture of friendship that discounts the steep learning curve that I’d face as a poet.

AM: I can relate.  I once hoped to gain the experience and skill to become a poet, but I gave up at some point.  Do you ever feel lonely working on poetry and the law?  What I mean is, do you ever feel as if you’re going against the grain, doing something different and even unappreciated by some in the legal community?

JE:  My work with lawyer poets has, from the beginning, been an exhilarating endeavor. And I must say, I have not experienced the work in a lonely way. Initially, when I began to identify the hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who had turned to poetry throughout history, I had the sense that I had descended into a vast underground cavern populated by the most exciting unknown persons you could imagine. John William Corrington (who died well over a decade before I discovered his work) was only the first of these exotic—and yes, I think, initially it felt like I was dealing with some exotic creature, something like a hilltribe elder from a remote village in Burma. I felt like I had stumbled onto a new world and a new way to think about “law and literature.” Law and literature had become, in my discovery of the lawyer poets, an introduction to lawyers who practiced literature, just like they practiced law. One doesn’t feel lonely living amidst these wonderful ghosts!

Then I began corresponding with contemporary lawyer poets. I didn’t have all that much success in inducing them to talk about their lives as lawyer poets (with a few notable exceptions, Michael Blumenthal being one of them), but I did find that lawyers were interested in talking with me about their poetry. If I had not started publishing the poetry of lawyers in the Legal Studies Forum, things might have taken a turn toward the lonely. I began to spend considerable time reading poetry and trying to figure out how to think about what I was reading and how to talk to poets about their work. Keep in mind, I did not grow up reading poetry, and with the exception of Wendell Berry and Robert Bly, had really not read poetry. So, novice that I was, I was entering a new world and that produced its own excitement. As the years rolled along, I found that I had been befriended by poetry, and that poets were becoming my friends. I mentioned my friendship with Judge Clarke, and this is a friendship that arose from my efforts in publishing his poetry. A similar thing happened with Michael Blumenthal, who is, as you know, now a colleague. There are countless other friendships of just this kind—built around our regard for poetry—that working with lawyer poets has made possible.

Do I think of my work as going against the grain? In all honesty, I don’t. I see my work with lawyer poets as being another expression of the rich history of lawyers engaged in literary enterprises. My work is not against the grain, it is the grain.

Am I concerned that this work is unappreciated by the legal academic community? I can’t say that I am. In an essay, “Why Write?” that appeared in the Journal of Legal Education last year, I noted that “Law teachers dance to the beat of different drummers. We are driven by different visions of legal education as we adopt, adapt, and advocate a law school’s regime of training.” I’ve never let what my colleagues do (or think they are doing) confine my vision of what a lawyer’s education might be, or what it should be. If I had sought appreciation for any of my work as a teacher, I would have given up writing many years ago. In fact, if it were appreciation that drove me, I would never have undertaken my work with lawyer poets.

AM:  You’re right: it is the grain.  I agree completely.  And I’m glad you mentioned your essay “Why Write.”  I read it recently and was planning to ask you about it.  In fact, it was that essay—and in particular the line about “a note of sadness”—that brought about my previous question.  What I wanted to ask you about, from the essay, was your colleague’s assumption—I think you refer to him as “Randy”—that everyone in the legal academy is writing for the same reason.  Your point, I think, is that all writing has a rhetorical purpose: sometimes it’s to persuade; sometimes it’s to explain; sometimes it’s just a tedious exercise to gain tenure; and sometimes it’s to delight and explore.  Some of us can’t help writing.  I sometimes find myself at the kitchen table, and instead of enjoying my meal I’m panicking because this is time I could spend reading and writing.  I was wondering if you could say a little more about this colleague’s assumption and whether it’s systemic or shared by many others.

JE:  In my Journal of Legal Education essay “Why Write?” I was puzzled by a colleague’s notion that he had somehow failed as a scholar because legal colleagues didn’t pay what he thought was enough attention to his writing. My colleague assumed that if you write about a legal doctrine in an informed way the world—that is judges, legislators, law professors—would take note of the work. I found my colleague’s assumption that when we write the world should pay attention to us a bit puzzling. I had always assumed that for the most part what we publish in law reviews gets little or no attention. Most of us don’t write law review articles that are celebrated for changing the law or offering new perspectives on the law.

In my case, much of my writing has been about legal education. I never had any notion that in writing about legal education my colleagues were going to change the way they think about legal education and legal training and begin to rely upon me for guidance. Consequently, I had the sense that in my writing—and I’ve written far more than most of my colleagues—I wasn’t trying to change the world, so my writing did not depend on an appreciative audience. Why, then, should I bother to write? I remember talking with one of my law school professors about writing—who was both prolific and recognized—when I first went into teaching. I knew when I decided to teach that I’d have to write and publish law review articles. I knew, following the scholarship of the professors that I had in law school, that some of them were scholars (and writers) and some of them were not. I was curious, when I talked with Robert Sedler, who had been my teacher in conflicts and in constitutional law, what prompted him to be so prolific as a writer. Bob Sedler told me something I’ll never forget: “Jim,” he said, “the reason I write is that I’ve been puzzling over something and I’ve been reading what has been written about it, and I realize that what I really want to have said about the subject, said in a way that responds to my concerns, has simply not been written. I write to compose something that I would have found valuable and interesting if someone other than I had written it.”

I think Bob Sedler’s notion has left an indelible imprint on my thinking: I write to say something in a way that I think it should be said. Now, does this mean that all of my writing is exquisite, and the answer is clearly no. When I revisit my older work, I have no doubt that what I wrote could have been said better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I said it as best I could; I made a down payment in the writing in living up to Bob Sedler’s notion that you write because you want to say something in a different way than what you find that has already been written.

I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to imply in my essay, “Why Write?” that my legal colleagues all write for the same reason. Quite the opposite. I assume that my colleagues write for many different reasons. There are undoubtedly some colleagues who write only because the job requires it (and, unfortunately, after they get tenure, some colleagues manage to get away with writing little or nothing at all). Other colleagues write because they want to think of themselves as scholars. This idea of being a scholar never quite caught on with me. For the first decade or so after I started teaching, I wrote to address a particular problem or concern, often something in or about my teaching. Then, somewhere along the way—and I think this came as I began to teach literature and narrative jurisprudence courses—I began to think about writing as writing, or as you put it, writing as a rhetorical endeavor. I wasn’t writing in the rhetorical sense of trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ideas (and yes, there is always something of that whenever we write), but writing as an experience of writing and writing in furtherance of the idea that if I paid particular attention to how I write, I might actually be a writer. I confess that I am far more drawn to the idea of trying to be a writer than to the fantasy of being a scholar.

AM:  There is no doubt in my mind that you are a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you locate readers in particular settings, no matter what the topic of your essay is.  There’s one essay you wrote that begins by talking about how you’re sitting at home waiting for the mail to arrive, and then you head out to the mailbox once the mail arrives.  It’s that sort of thing—very subtle—that I’ve always admired in your work. 

One of the reasons I went to West Virginia for law school was because I had read your essays when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was an English major, so it didn’t take me long on Google—or whatever interface or browser we were using in those days—to find your work.  I remember thinking, “law school can’t be all bad with people like this in it.”  I even remember emailing you before I went to law school, and you and I talked about a number of things. 

As for scholarship, there are those who write about others, and those who write so that others will write about them one day.  You fall into that latter camp, I think.  One day, people will be writing about your essays and thinking about your approach to pedagogy. 

We should probably be wrapping up soon, so just a couple more questions.  Since we’re on the topic of pedagogy, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the future of legal education.  It seems that every week now there’s a major article lamenting the decline of law schools or highlighting some law school “scam” or scandal.  Many people are predicting that several law schools will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future, and there can be no doubt that there is an overabundance of lawyers, that law school and law school textbooks are too expensive for most young people, and that the legal job market is very tough today.  How does all this impact the future of the legal academy?   

JE:  Allen, I remember quite well our correspondence before you took up the study of law. That kind of personal interaction with a prospective student is unusual. In other disciplines, students often seek out particular teachers and attend schools because of a desire to study with a particular teacher. Law is unusual in that sense. Students go off to law school with the idea of studying law and becoming lawyers; they don’t think all that much about who their teachers will be and the differing conceptions that their teachers have about law and the practice of law. I know that you came to law school with the idea of studying both law and literature, and I know just how rare that situation is. Most students with a literary interest expect to put their literary work on hold while they are in law school. If they made me King of legal education for a day, I think I’d mandate that every law student be exposed to the idea that the law too is a literary enterprise and can be viewed from a literary perspective, and that a literary perspective might be a prism through which we can see our lives as lawyers with better clarity.

I’m afraid I can’t offer anything new, startling, or subversive on the future of legal education. My focus in the past fifteen years has been on my own teaching, writing, and the make-over of the Legal Studies Forum as a literary journal. Some semesters I have almost no students sign up for my courses, and other semesters they arrive in plentiful numbers. I have never quite been able to figure out how that works. I am still intrigued by how my own teaching works (and what to do when I admit to myself it sometimes does not work). I am still writing about what I teach and how I try to teach it. The more I focus on teaching, the less I think about the future of legal education. I sometimes think we’ve lost our bearings in legal education, but we have been so hell-bent on doing that for some 60 plus years now I no longer see it as a problem that awaits us in the future.

AM: This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope we get a chance to have another one like it.  It’s been so long since I’ve been back to West Virginia that I’d like to ask about the changes to the law school and how the weather and a few friends have been, but I’m mindful that we’re doing this interview not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of readers, so I’ll hold off.  We can have those other conversations another time. 

I’ll finish by asking if you could say a bit about what Legal Studies Forum has published lately, and what it has in store for upcoming issues.  Since you mentioned your role in transforming Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, I’d also like to ask you about the history of the journal.  It strikes me that the journal itself probably hasn’t told its own story, and the journal is so interesting and has been around for so long that its story needs to be documented. 

JE:  Allen, I noted earlier in the interview that I had transformed the Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, and I think that is also a fair description of where the journal is at today. We publish poetry and fiction by and about lawyers, and we have also published memoirs, autobiographical essays, and traditional literary essays (for example, a 2013 issue was devoted to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). This year we are publishing two collections of poetry (two issues of the journal, each issue devoted to a single poet), a novel, and an issue of miscellany that focuses on “Lawyers and Literature.”

You asked about the history of the Legal Studies Forum. I have been tempted for a good many years now to write what I know of the history of the journal, and having failed to do so, I have tried to encourage some of those who were involved in the founding of the journal to write the history and have been unsuccessful on that front as well. The history of the Legal Studies Forum is of interest to me because the journal has played a rather central part in my life as a writer and as a teacher. Maybe this interview will get me back in the notion to work on the history.

The Legal Studies Forum (LSF) got its start in the mid-1970s as a newsletter of a newly formed organization called the American Legal Studies Association (ALSA). ALSA has, unfortunately, been defunct for a good many years now, and the remaining remnant of that old organization is the journal.

LSF first appeared as an ALSA newsletter in 1976. In 1977, the newsletter became the ALSA Forum and was published under that title until 1984 when it was retitled the Legal Studies Forum, the title the journal still carries. I have given thought on several occasions to changing the title of the journal to reflect its present literary bearings, but I have a fondness for the old title and have never been able to bring myself to give the journal a new name.

The journal slowly evolved from an organizational newsletter into a “forum” that in its published form looked like it had been printed in someone’s basement. It most definitely had a homemade look and that sense of being marginal has followed the journal to this day (and I have done little to have it otherwise). So, the journal didn’t begin as a journal, it began with ALSA, an organization created by colleagues in the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The UMass department of legal studies was created by Ron Pipkin, John Bonsignore (now deceased), and Peter d’Errico, who were trying to escape the business school where they were teaching business law.

The early 1970s was a time when the antinomian streams flowing in the academic disciplines—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—were subjecting the disciplines to challenging changes. We had begun to hear talk of breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and we were beginning, in the mid and late 1960s, to see the appearance of new interdisciplinary programs: women’s studies; African American studies; environmental studies. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin developed the idea for a stand-alone Department of Legal Studies that would make it possible for UMass students to major in law the way they would philosophy or sociology. Their approach to legal studies was interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. They wanted to establish a beachhead for legal studies that would stand apart from the kind of vocational training and empty philosophical posturing they associated with legal education. ALSA and the Legal Studies Forum represented legal studies as one of the liberal arts; the study of law was viewed as being a humanistic discipline. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin, with uncanny foresight, viewed legal studies as an interdisciplinary crossroads with law being a central focus. What the founders of ALSA could not foresee is that legal scholarship (and to a far lesser extent, legal education) would undergo the same kind of sea-change with the arrival, in the late 1970s, of Critical Legal Studies, feminist jurisprudence, and law and literature (with variant strains of legal storytelling and narrative jurisprudence).

ALSA was founded as a home away from home for colleagues who were teaching law in the various social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) and in the humanities (philosophy and history) who had some reason to identify their work with law as well as with the core discipline that defined their university existence. Some of these teachers were law-trained, and some were not. The folks at UMass begin to think that the legal studies program they were pioneering might be the basis for legal studies programs around the country. The late 1970s was also a time when paralegal programs were beginning to appear in undergraduate studies, and teachers in these programs were looking for an intellectual home base. Interestingly enough, in the early days of ALSA there was a concern that the legal studies movement—and yes, there was some notion that a “movement” was underway—might drift in the direction of paralegal programs, and you can be sure that Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin had no desire for that to happen. They didn’t discourage paralegal teachers from participation in ALSA, but the ALSA mantra for their own Department of Legal Studies—and for the journal—was always: interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. That was enough to keep the paralegal folks at bay.

I should note that while the UMass-Amherst folks were always thinking about teaching law outside law schools, indeed, they argued that it was the very fact that law was so often taught only in law schools that underscored the need for a legal studies movement, they were always more than welcoming to the few law teachers that became involved in the organization. I was one of the early “outsiders” to cast my lot with ALSA, but not the first. Wythe Holt, the Marxist legal historian, and a law professor at the University of Alabama, is the only known legal colleague who attended both the first ALSA conference in 1977 and the first Critical Legal Studies conference held at the University of Wisconsin, also in 1977. Wythe published several articles in LSF, with one article appearing in the second volume of the journal when it was then the ALSA Forum. I attended the second ALSA conference in 1978 at Rutgers, and gave my first paper at an ALSA conference in Pittsburgh the following year. J. Allen Smith, at Rutgers law school, one of the old “law and literature” men, was also involved in the early conferences and published several articles in LSF in the early years. (We were doing law and literature articles in LSF before “law and literature” picked up momentum in the early 80s.) David Papke, who obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Michigan, 1984), now on the law faculty at Marquette University, attended the early ALSA conferences, and served as editor of LSF (1990-1996) before I took over as editor. Judith Koffler, another widely-respected law and literature scholar, appeared at most of the early ALSA conferences.

ALSA failed to survive but it did succeed in one sense: The ALSA conferences were lively affairs, with a degree of informality and a sense of collegial extended family, that made it possible for me, and colleagues like Judith Koffler and Wythe Holt to find like-minded colleagues. (I should note that both Koffler and Holt ended up as visiting professors at West Virginia and both would have remained on the faculty if it had not been for the short-sighted decision-making of my colleagues.) ALSA, and now LSF, have been most successful in helping to create a community for colleagues who think of the study of law as a liberal art.

Is there a “legal studies movement” in existence today? I don’t think so. Have the ideas and ideals associated with the “legal studies movement” found their way into legal education? I think they have. This immigration of ideas has taken different forms: the humanistic legal education movement (1977-1985), the law and literature movement (now commonly attributed to James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination published in 1973, a movement that gained more attention in the late 70s, early 80s, and has now gained the status as a “school” of contemporary jurisprudence); Critical Legal Studies (CLS arrived in legal education at the same time ALSA was founded, and is now, so far as most of us can see, given up its corporeal existence).

I don’t see anything these days to suggest that anyone is talking about a “legal studies movement.” The one person that persists in writing about “legal studies” is Austin Sarat at Amherst College. In the last 20 years, Sarat, writing about the teaching of law as a liberal art in undergraduate schools, has been a one-man legal studies movement!

Did the “legal studies movement” spearheaded by ALSA change law school training? I think the literal answer is no. What happened in legal education, as I have alluded to here, is that legal scholarship (law reviews/law journals) now routinely publishes interdisciplinary work. In the past four decades (that happen to span the years that I have been teaching), there has been, shall we say, a “greening” of legal scholarship that encompasses the interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic approaches that my UMass-Amherst colleagues and LSF tried to focus on. Unfortunately, the UMass model for legal studies did not find widespread adoption, and the liberal arts perspective in legal education, notwithstanding the greening of legal scholarship, is still a marginal enterprise.

AM:  Jim, thanks so much for this very interesting, very informative interview.  I’ve really enjoyed this.

JE:  Allen, I greatly appreciate your continued interest in my work and this rare opportunity to present in more detail what I have been trying to do as a teacher, writer, and editor. Thanks for all the effort you have put into making this interview possible.

Donna Meredith Reviews Terry Lewis’s Latest Legal Thriller, Delusional

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Writing on December 18, 2013 at 8:47 am
Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith is a freelance writer living in Tallahassee, Florida. She taught English, journalism, and TV production in public high schools in West Virginia and Georgia for 29 years. Donna earned a BA in Education with a double major in English and Journalism from Fairmont State College, an MS in Journalism from West Virginia University, and an EdS in English from Nova Southeastern University. She has also participated in fiction writing workshops at Florida State University and served as a newsletter editor for the Florida State Attorney General’s Office. The Glass Madonna was her first novel. It won first place for unpublished women’s fiction in the Royal Palm Literary Awards, sponsored by the Florida Writers Association, and runner up in the Gulf Coast novel writing contest. Her second novel, The Color of Lies, won the gold medal for adult fiction in 2012 from the Florida Publishers Association and also first place in unpublished women’s fiction from the Florida Writers Association. Her latest book is nonfiction, Magic in the Mountains, the amazing story of how a determined and talented woman revived the ancient art of cameo glass in the twentieth century in West Virginia.  She is currently working on a series of environmental thrillers featuring a female hydrogeologist as the lead character.

Ted Stevens, still sporting a host of flaws, returns as a criminal defense lawyer in another gripping courtroom mystery by Terry Lewis.

Delusional, the third in the Ted Stevens series, follows Conflict of Interest and Privileged Information. It is Lewis’s most compelling book yet.

In Delusional Ted is appointed by the court to defend Nathan Hart, a young man confined to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for murdering his family—a crime Ted prosecuted.

Now Nathan is accused of murdering Aaron Rosenberg, a psychologist and administrator at the mental hospital. The motive? Rosenberg denied Nathan’s latest request to be released.

Not only did Nathan threaten to kill Rosenberg, but also an eyewitness placed Nathan at the murder scene, where his clothes were later found with blood stains.

The novel alternates first person accounts between Ted and Nathan, creating strong psychological profiles of both men and powerful suspense. This technique keeps us deeply involved and probing for the truth until the last pages.

As Ted delves into hospital affairs, he begins to wonder, despite all the evidence to the contrary, if Nathan might be innocent. Ted’s doubts infect the reader, but as we learn how clever and warped Nathan is, we don’t want to be manipulated by him any more than Ted does.

Nathan Hart is a fascinating character. We never doubt that he is mentally ill. We might give him a pass on believing God talks to him, because as he puts it: “Communication with the creator of the universe is not the sign of a mind out of touch with reality but of a soul in touch with the cosmos.”

But Nathan also believes his family members were involved in a worldwide conspiracy, part of a covert agency called “The Unit.” His evidence? Dog-eared magazines left on an end table. The arrangement of food in the refrigerator. A door left slightly ajar. You get the idea—Nathan is nuts. But he is also highly intelligent and can be charming at times.

What Ted has to determine is whether Nathan’s claims of innocence are valid—or just the rants of a delusional, paranoid schizophrenic.

Several staff members, though it seems unlikely, could have murdered Rosenberg. Frank Hutchinson, legal counsel at the hospital, might have motive. His wife, a psychologist, is rumored to have had an affair with the deceased. Dr. Rebecca Whitsen, Nathan’s psychologist; and James Washington, a social worker; had access to Nathan’s clothes and his food and medications—and Nathan swears he was being poisoned. Another possibility is the hospital’s Chief of Security. He is being investigated for sexual misconduct with patients. Rosenberg pushed the investigation, in which Nathan served as a witness.

Nathan also believes his uncle, a professor of international studies, could be behind the murder because of the Hart family’s connections to “The Unit.” Ted dismisses that as nonsense, but might the uncle have other reasons to want his nephew incarcerated?

And since this is a mental hospital, other patients with criminal tendencies provide alternatives Ted can present to a jury. Donnie Mercer is an inmate capable of violence. And then there is the mysterious Cindy Sands, a former patient who once stalked Dr. Whitsen.

Like any good series, this one has personal issues that develop from book to book. The client isn’t the only one with delusions. Ted Stevens fools himself into believing he has his addictions under control, but his substance abuse jeopardizes his career and the stability of his family.

Ted drinks and uses drugs to overcome “constant melancholy, which at times became a sadness so deep and dark nothing could penetrate it.” When under the influence, he demonstrates poor judgment and loses control of his temper. He creates more problems for himself, and then has even more reason to descend into that dark hole.

Watching layer upon layer of this psychological mystery peel away to reveal the truth is pure pleasure. The final judgment is messy, like real life, where evaluating good and evil can be difficult.

If you enjoy a good legal thriller, you’ll love this one for its complex characters and riveting plot.

Terry Lewis brings a wealth of courtroom experience to bear on his novels. He has been a circuit court judge in the Second Judicial Circuit in Florida since 1998, with prior service as a county judge in that circuit from 1989-98. His most famous decision occurred during the 2000 presidential election when he determined Florida’s secretary of state had to include recounted ballots in her final state presidential tally. The decision was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court, and George W. Bush became president.

Terry Lewis

Terry Lewis

Flash

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on December 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This poem first appeared here in The Aroostook Review.

 

Photograph in a Bar, Washington, D.C.

 

The guy in the foreground is Quint

my friend tells me

pointing to and holding

a photograph at arm’s length.

Behind Quint, on the table

two Bud Light bottles sweat

in sticky puddles, framing

a fluorescent margarita.

In Quint’s hand: a cell phone.

There’s a purse on the table

no girl to claim it

just an empty barstool

and silhouettes

of nameless faces

filling dark spaces.

“Constructing a Canon of Law-Related Poetry,” by Alexandra J. Roberts

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Writing on November 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Alexandra J. Roberts has published “Constructing a Canon of Law-Related Poetry” in the Texas Law Review (Vol. 90).  Her abstract reads as follows:

Law and poetry make a potent, if surprising, pair.  Poetry thrives on simultaneity and open-endedness, while legal writing aspires to resolve issues decisively, whether it advocates or adjudges.  The law and literature movement has traditionally focused either on law as literature, applying literary theory and techniques to legal texts such as judicial opinions and legislation, or law in literature, i.e., law as portrayed in literary and artistic works.  Poetry and poetics have garnered relatively little attention under either approach.  While some scholars blame that omission on a supposed dearth of law-related poetry, the poems collected in Kader and Stanford’s Poetry of the Law: From Chaucer to the Present belie that claim.  This essay considers the place of poetry in legal studies and advocates incorporating it into both the dialogue and the curriculum of the law and literature movement.  It identifies themes that emerge from the juxtaposition of the poems in the anthology, examines the relationship of fixed-verse forms to law in the poems, and draws attention to those voices that are underrepresented in the collection and the movement.  It relies primarily on the process of close reading several of the hundred poems included in Poetry of the Law and, in so doing, it practices law in literature while it models precisely the type of critical approach that would serve those participating in the study of law as literature.  It prescribes a canon of law-related poetry and illustrates how the inclusion of poems and techniques of poetic interpretation stand to benefit students, lawyers, and theorists alike.

The paper may be downloaded here at the Texas Law Review website or here at SSRN.

James Elkins and the Lawyer Poets

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism, News Release, Poetry, Writing on November 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law

James Elkins of West Virginia University College of Law has edited Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2013), an anthology of poems about the practice of law.  Professor Elkins has been the longtime editor of Legal Studies Forum.  Contributors to the anthology include Lee Wm. Atkinson, Richard Bank, Michael Blumenthal, Ace Boggess, David Bristol, Lee Warner Brooks, MC Bruce, Laura Chalar, James Clarke, Martin Espada, Rachel Contreni Flynn, Katya Giritsky, Howard Gofreed, Nancy A. Henry, Susan Holahan, Paul Homer, Lawrence Joseph, Kenneth King, John Charles Kleefeld, Richard Krech, Bruce Laxalt, David  Leightty, John Levy, Greg McBride, James McKenna, Betsy McKenzie, Joyce Meyers, Jesse Mountjoy, Tim Nolan, Simon Perchik, Carl Reisman, Charles Reynard,  Steven M. Richman, Lee Robinson, Kristen Roedell, Barbara B. Rollins, Lawrence Russ, Michael Sowder, Ann Tweedy, Charles Williams, Kathleen Winter, and Warren Wolfson.

James Elkins

James Elkins
Professor of Law and Benedum Distinguished Scholar, West Virginia University College of Law

Service in St. Paul’s

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on November 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

 

This poem originally appeared in The Echo.

Service in St. Paul’s

 

            –London, 2003

 

Acrophobia turned

upside down:

fear floating away,

gravity deciding

to suddenly

give up.

 

There’s a dome

overhead, a glowing

Jesus over the altar,

and too much space

to pray

comfortably.

 

Imagination

among the scaffolding,

eye to eye with Joseph,

now falling facing up:

heaven does

not seem so high.

John William Corrington, A Literary Conservative

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The Novel, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

 

Allen 2

 

An earlier version of this essay appeared here at Fronch Porch Republic.

Remember the printed prose is always

half a lie: that fleas plagued patriots,

that greatness is an afterthought

affixed by gracious victors to their kin.

 

—John William Corrington

 

It was the spring of 2009.  I was in a class called Lawyers & Literature.  My professor, Jim Elkins, a short-thin man with long-white hair, gained the podium.  Wearing what might be called a suit—with Elkins one never could tell—he recited lines from a novella, Decoration Day.  I had heard of the author, John William Corrington, but only in passing.

“Paneled walnut and thick carpets,” Elkins beamed, gesturing toward the blank-white wall behind him, “row after row of uniform tan volumes containing between their buckram covers a serial dumb show of human folly and greed and cruelty.”  The students, uncomfortable, began to look at each other, registering doubt.  In law school, professors didn’t wax poetic.  But this Elkins—he was different.  With swelling confidence, he pressed on: “The Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, Supreme Court Reports.  Two hundred years of our collective disagreements and wranglings from Jay and Marshall through Taney and Holmes and Black and Frankfurter—the pathetic often ill-conceived attempts to resolve what we have done to one another.”

Elkins paused.  The room went still.  Awkwardly profound, or else profoundly awkward, the silence was like an uninvited guest at a dinner party—intrusive, unexpected, and there, all too there.  No one knew how to respond.  Law students, most of them, can rattle off fact-patterns or black-letter-law whenever they’re called on.  But this?  What were we to do with this?

What I did was find out more about John Willliam Corrington.  Having studied literature for two years in graduate school, I was surprised to hear this name—Corrington—in law school.  I booted up my laptop, right where I was sitting, and, thanks to Google, found a few biographical sketches of this man, who, it turned out, was perplexing, riddled with contradictions: a Southerner from the North, a philosopher in cowboy boots, a conservative literature professor, a lawyer poet.  This introduction to Corrington led to more books, more articles, more research.  Before long, I’d spent over $300 on Amazon.com.  And I’m not done yet.

***

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 28, 1932, Corrington—or Bill, as his friends and family called him—passed as a born-and-bred Southerner all of his life.  As well he might, for he lived most of his life below the Mason-Dixon line, and his parents were from Memphis and had moved north for work during the Depression.  He moved to the South (to Shreveport, Louisiana) at the age of 10, although his academic CV put out that he was, like his parents, born in Memphis, Tennessee.  Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school in Louisiana but was expelled for “having the wrong attitude.”  The Jesuit influence, however, would remain with him always.  At the beginning of his books, he wrote, “AMDG,” which stands for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.”  “It’s just something that I was taught when I was just learning to write,” he explained in an interview in 1985, “taught by the Jesuits to put at the head of all my papers.”

Bill was, like the late Mark Royden Winchell, a Copperhead at heart, and during his career he authored or edited, or in some cases co-edited, twenty books of varying genres.  He earned a B.A. from Centenary College and M.A. in Renaissance literature from Rice University, where he met his wife, Joyce, whom he married on February 6, 1960.  In September of that year, he and Joyce moved to Baton Rouge, where Bill became an instructor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University (LSU).  At that time, LSU’s English department was known above all for The Southern Review (TSR), the brainchild of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, but also for such literary luminaries as Robert Heilman, who would become Bill’s friend.

In the early 1960s, Bill pushed for TSR to feature fiction and poetry and not just literary criticism.  He butted heads with then-editors Donald E. Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson, who thought of the journal as scholarly, not creative, as if journals couldn’t be both scholarly and creative.  A year after joining the LSU faculty, Bill published his first book of poetry, Where We Are.  With only 18 poems and 225 first edition printings, the book hardly established Bill’s reputation as Southern man of letters.  But it invested his name with recognition and gave him confidence to complete his first novel, And Wait for the Night (1964).

Bill and Joyce spent the 1963-64 academic year in Sussex, England, where Bill took the D.Phil. from the University of Sussex in 1965.  In the summer of 1966, at a conference at Northwestern State College, Mel Bradford, that Dean of Southern Letters, pulled Bill aside and told him, enthusiastically, that And Wait for the Night (1964) shared some of the themes and approaches of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  Bill agreed.  And happily.

***

Of Bill and Miller Williams, Bill’s colleague at LSU, Jo LeCoeur, poet and literature professor, once submitted, “Both men had run into a Northern bias against what was perceived as the culturally backward South.  While at LSU they fought back against this snub, editing two anthologies of Southern writing and lecturing on ‘The Dominance of Southern Writers.’  Controversial as a refutation of the anti-intellectual Southern stereotype, their joint lecture was so popular [that] the two took it on the road to area colleges.”

In this respect, Bill was something of a latter-day Southern Fugitive—a thinker in the tradition of Donald Davidson, Allan Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and John Crowe Ransom.  Bill, too, took his stand.  And his feelings about the South were strong and passionate, as evidenced by his essay in The Southern Partisan, “Are Southerners Different?” (1984).  Bill’s feelings about the South, however, often seemed mixed.  “[T]he South was an enigma,” Bill wrote to poet Charles Bukowski, “a race of giants, individualists, deists, brainy and gutsy:  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson (Andy), Davis, Calhoun, Lee, and on and on.  And yet the stain of human slavery on them.”  As the epigraph (above) suggests, Bill was not interested in hagiographic renderings of Southern figures.  He was interested in the complexities of Southern people and experience.  In the end, though, there was no doubt where his allegiances lay.  “You strike me as the most unreconstructed of all the Southern novelists I know anything about,” said one interviewer to Bill.  “I consider that just about the greatest compliment anyone could give,” Bill responded.

While on tour with Williams, Bill declared, “We are told that the Southerner lives in the past.  He does not.  The past lives in him, and there is a difference.”  The Southerner, for Bill, “knows where he came from, and who his fathers were.”  The Southerner “knows still that he came from the soil, and that the soil and its people once had a name.”  The Southerner “knows that is true, and he knows it is a myth.”  And the Southerner “knows the soil belonged to the black hands that turned it as well as it ever could belong to any hand.”  In short, the Southerner knows that his history is tainted but that it retains virtues worth sustaining—that a fraught past is not reducible to sound bites or political abstractions but is vast and contains multitudes.

***

In 1966, Bill and Joyce moved to New Orleans, where the English Department at Loyola University, housed in a grand Victorian mansion on St. Charles Avenue, offered him a chairmanship.  Joyce earned the M.S. in chemistry from LSU that same year.  By this time, Bill had written four additional books of poetry, the last of which, Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965), benefited from Bukowski’s influence.  Bill’s poetry earned a few favorable reviews but not as much attention as his novels—And Wait for the Night (1964), The Upper Hand (1967), and The Bombardier (1970).  Writing in The Massachusetts Review, Beat poet and critic Josephine Miles approvingly noted two of Bill’s poems from Lines, “Lucifer Means Light” and “Algerien Reveur,” alongside poetry by James Dickey, but her comments were more in passing than in depth.  Dickey himself, it should be noted, admired Bill’s writing, saying, “A more forthright, bold, adventurous writer than John William Corrington would be very hard to find.”

Joyce earned her PhD in chemistry from Tulane in 1968.  Her thesis, which she wrote under the direction of L. C. Cusachs, was titled, “Effects of Neighboring Atoms in Molecular Orbital Theory.”  She began teaching chemistry at Xavier University, and her knowledge of the hard sciences brought about engaging conservations, between her and Bill, about the New Physics.  “Even though Bill only passed high school algebra,” Joyce would later say, “his grounding in Platonic idealism made him more capable of understanding the implications of quantum theory than many with more adequate educations.”

By the mid-70s, Bill had become fascinated by Eric Voeglin.  A German historian, philosopher, and émigré who had fled the Third Reich, Voegelin taught in LSU’s history department and lectured for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he was a Salvatori Fellow.  Voeglin’s philosophy, which drew from Friedrich von Hayek and other conservative thinkers, inspired Bill.  In fact, Voegelin made such a lasting impression that, at the time of Bill’s death, Bill was working on an edition of Voegelin’s The Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings.  (After Bill’s death, two men—Robert Anthony Pascal and James Lee Babin—finished what Bill had begun.  The completed edition appeared in 1991.)

By 1975, the year he earned his law degree from Tulane, Bill had penned three novels, a short story collection, two editions (anthologies), and four books of poetry.  But his writings earned little money.  He also had become increasingly disenchanted with the political correctness on campus:

By 1972, though I’d become chair of an English department and offered a full professorship, I’d had enough of academia. You may remember that in the late sixties and early seventies, the academic world was hysterically attempting to respond to student thugs who, in their wisdom, claimed that serious subjects seriously taught were “irrelevant.” The Ivy League gutted its curriculum, deans and faculty engaged in “teach-ins,” spouting Marxist-Leninist slogans, and sat quietly watching while half-witted draft-dodgers and degenerates of various sorts held them captive in their offices. Oddly enough, even as this was going on, there was a concerted effort to crush the academic freedom of almost anyone whose opinions differed from that of the mob or their college-administrator accessories. It seemed a good time to get out and leave the classroom to idiots who couldn’t learn and didn’t know better, and imbeciles who couldn’t teach and should have known better.

Bill joined the law firm of Plotkin & Bradley, a small personal injury practice in New Orleans, and continued to publish in such journals as The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review, and in such conservative periodicals as The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age.  His stories took on a legal bent, peopled as they were with judges and attorneys.  But neither law nor legal fiction brought him fame or fortune.

So he turned to screenplays—and, at last, earned the profits he desired.  Viewers of the recent film I am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith, might be surprised to learn that Bill and Joyce wrote the screenplay for the earlier version, Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston.  And viewers of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) might be surprised to learn that Bill wrote the film’s screenplay while still a law student.  All told, Bill and Joyce wrote five screenplays and one television movie.  Free from the constraints of university bureaucracy, Bill collaborated with Joyce on various television daytime dramas, including Search for Tomorrow, Another World, Texas, Capitol, One Life to Live, Superior Court, and, most notably, General Hospital.  These ventures gained the favor of Hollywood stars, and Bill and Joyce eventually moved to Malibu.

Bill constantly molded and remolded his image, embracing Southern signifiers while altering their various expressions.  His early photos suggest a pensive, put-together gentleman wearing ties and sport coats and smoking pipes.  Later photos depict a rugged man clad in western wear.  Still later photos conjure up the likes of Roy Orbison, what with Bill’s greased hair, cigarettes, and dark sunglasses.

Whatever his looks, Bill was a stark, provocative, and profoundly sensitive writer.  His impressive oeuvre has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves.  That scholars of conservatism, to say nothing of scholars of Southern literature, have ignored this man is almost inconceivable.  There are no doubt many aspects of Bill’s life and literature left to be discovered.  As Bill’s friend William Mills put it, “I believe there is a critique of modernity throughout [Bill’s] writing that will continue to deserve serious attentiveness and response.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, Bill suffered a heart attack and died.  He was 56.  His last words, echoing Stonewall Jackson, were, “it’s all right.”

 

Unmasking

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, The South, Writing on August 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

This essay first appeared here in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Allen Mendenhall

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

                                                                                           Qoheleth 1 : 11

Southerners are particular about the way they preserve their loved ones; they encourage embalming, for instance, although at one time they shunned it as unconsented-to tampering with the body.  Eventually someone decided, rather wisely, that the deceased, had they a choice, would like a genteel display of their “shell.”  This meant more than sanitization: it meant dressing the dead like ladies or gentlemen on their way to church.  Which is precisely where they were going—just before they were buried in the ground.  For the most part, Southerners don’t cremate.  (A preacher once told me that the Bible discourages cremation.)

In the South—more than in other regions—funerals are hierarchical affairs: one’s nearness to the deceased signifies one’s importance to the family.  This holds for the church and burial service and is especially true if the departed was popular in life.  Being closest to the deceased, pallbearers shoulder the weightiest burden.

Nowhere is decorum more important than at a funeral procession.  It’s unseemly for one who’s not party to the procession to fail to bow his head and arrange a grave face as the procession passes.  If you’re in a vehicle, you pull over to the curb and, so long as it isn’t dangerous to do so, take up the sidewalk as if on foot.  Quitting the vehicle is, in general, inadvisable if by the time you encounter the procession the hearse is no longer in sight.  Or if, alternatively, the weather doesn’t permit.  If you’re in line, the modus operandi is ecclesiastic—ordered from clergy, to immediate kin, to next-of-kin, to distant family, to friends, to the rest.  Losing your place in line is, accordingly, like losing your intimacy with the family, for whom these rituals are carried out.

I was eight when Great-Granddaddy died.  Mom piloted me before his open-casket and whispered, “That’s not Great-Granddaddy.  That’s just a shell.  Great-Granddaddy’s gone to heaven.”

I looked down at the thing, the shell, the facsimile that seemed uncannily human, and said to myself—perhaps out loud—“That’s not Great-Granddaddy.  That’s something else.”  But the thing appeared real, strange, so nearly alive that it repulsed me.  Its eyes, thank God, were closed, but its mannequin face, vacant and plastic, nauseated me.

Mom prodded me away, hollering at my cousin to take me outside.  My first brush with death, while necessary, had not imparted a healthy understanding of mortality.

My grandmother, Nina, tried to familiarize me with the inescapable while I was still a boy.  Instead of taking me to playgrounds, she took me to cemeteries for what she called “Southern preparations.”  These outings usually occurred on warm spring afternoons, when azaleas bloomed bright white and pink, when yellow Jessamine vines crawled up walls and fences, when dogwoods yawned inflorescent, and when tulips, still un-beheaded, stretched with impeccable posture.  When, in short, nature was doing anything but dying.

Nina shared facts about various grave plots, giving the lowdown on so-and-so’s passing—“he died in Korea,” “he of aids,” “she during pregnancy,” and so forth.  When she finished, we fed the swans.

Which attacked me once.  I was standing on the riverbank, feeding the once-ugly ducklings by hand just as Nina had taught me, when, like Leda, I was enveloped by a feathered glory of beating white wings.  Traumatized, I no longer stood on shore but sat on the roof of the car.  To make me feel less sissy, Nina sat on the hood and pretended that she, too, was afraid.  It wasn’t their size exactly.  Nor the way they tussled with graceful wrath.  Maybe it was the mask about their swan eyes.  I’m sure it was that: the concealment, secret identity, veiled feelings.

Just before I got married, my fiancée, Giuliana, flew in from São Paulo to meet my family.  After supper, Nina insisted that I drive her through the cemetery.  I hadn’t been in years but instantly recognized the rod-iron gates that once seemed so colossal.  There was the river.  The ducks.  The swans.  In the distance, a family, their heads bowed, stood under a high green tent.

Giuliana was not disturbed by this detour.  Quite the contrary:  she felt in some way moved.  It was as if Nina had invited her into a private, intimate space: one that contradicted this modern world of medical science in which everyone tries to postpone or avert death.  In a cemetery one couldn’t help but think of decomposition, permanence, the soul.  One couldn’t help but track the beat of one’s heart, measure the inhales and exhales of one’s breathing.  One couldn’t help, that is, but cherish the fact that one’s alive.

My cell phone buzzed.  An unknown number flashed across the screen.  I answered, “Hello?”

“Mr. Mendenhall?”

“Yes.”

“Are you in the car?”

“No.”

“This is the cancer center at St. Joseph’s Hospital.  We need you to come in.”

I was twenty-four, and about to hear, “You have cancer.”

Nothing—not even a Southern upbringing—can prepare you for those three words.

The odd thing about preachers is that, depending on time and place, their company is either most welcome or most unwelcome.  When I got the call, the cancer call, my uncle, a preacher, was beside me, and I was, to that end, glad.  He made me feel the power of presence, to say nothing of companionship:  I was not alone.

My uncle—Uncle Steve—preaches in the only Southern Baptist church in Chicago.  Unlike most Southern Baptist preachers down South, he eschews the noisy and spectacular, preferring, instead, politesse and restraint.  Bookish and professorial, his voice nasal, his nose suitably sloped to hold up his saucer-sized spectacles, he loves theology and will tell you as much at the drop of a hat.  What with his general softness, he might, with a bit more age, have been mistaken for Truman Capote, with whom, incidentally, his father—my grandfather—had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama.

A man of custom, a student of Latin and Greek, fluent in Russian and French, a former lawyer and journalist, Uncle Steve is uncommonly qualified to carry on the sanctifying traditions of Western Civilization.  He is, in short, a gentleman and a scholar.  And he was in Atlanta that day, standing in the Varsity parking lot, his belly stuffed full of chili dogs, his ketchup-smudged face like an advertisement for this, the world’s largest drive-in restaurant.

I could feel his gaze moving over me and spared him the discomfort of asking what was the matter.

“I have cancer,” I said.

As the words issued from my mouth, my chest felt as though someone were driving a stake into it.  Cancer.  That thing other people got.  Old people.  Not young and healthy people.  Not me.

I tried to act normal, but in doing so betrayed what I really felt—terror.

Uncle Steve put his arm around me.  “Come on.  Let’s get to the hospital.”

Every hour on the hour, the employees of St. Joseph’s Hospital pray together.  These moments, though heavily orchestrated, bring peace to the ill and dying, the sick and suffering.  The nurses and doctors who wander the hallways pause while a disembodied, female voice recites the Lord’s Prayer, first in English, then in Spanish.  “Our Father, who art in heaven…”—the words echo off the cold, linoleum tiles—“hallowed be thy name.

This was happening when I walked into the waiting room.  A nurse, a heavyset black woman with the softest eyes I’d ever seen, was behind the counter, her necklace, weighed down by a tiny crucified Jesus, dangling at her pillow-like breasts.  She whispered, again and again, amen, amen, and then, looking up, took me in with those deep knowing eyes, spoke without speaking.  Sunlight streamed through the cool, trapezoid panes of glass in the ceiling, falling across her face and hair at a low angle.

At last the prayer ended.  She unfolded her hands and smiled formally.  “Good afternoon, how may I help you?”

Responding with “I have cancer” didn’t feel right, so I said, “I’m here to see Dr. Danaker.”

That was all she needed to know.

“Bless your heart, child,” she said.  And, for the first time, I got emotional.  She hugged me, calling me child again; then, right then, I wanted to be a child, wanted her to scoop me into her arms and cradle me, wanted her thick, strong body wrapped around me; but there, too, was Uncle Steve, dignified and collected.  I couldn’t break down in front of him.

The nurse ushered me into a white, windowless room with expansive tile walls and sat me on a tissue-papered chair, which swished and crackled whenever I readjusted my derrière.

There I was.  Conscious.  Being, yet trying to fathom not being.  I imagined myself in a coffin, like that horrid shell, Great-Granddaddy.  Which only made things worse, for I knew that, once in the coffin, I would have no notion of being there.  The problem was thinking itself.  I couldn’t imagine being dead because I couldn’t imagine not imagining.

On Sunday mornings, before church, dad had always made my siblings and me read from the obituaries.  This, he said, would acquaint us with the fragility of life.  He also thought the best way to learn was from experience.  But he’d known only one person who’d experienced death and, almost impossibly, lived to tell about it—Martin, a friend of the family, who’d apparently died three times and, on the operating table, been revived.  Martin loved cigarettes, which he called the backbone of Southern economy and which, he readily admitted, had brought about his three near-fatalities.

Except Martin didn’t put it in those terms.  To him, cigarettes had allowed him to float outside his body for a while, to see what death was like.  For better or worse, Martin didn’t tease a tunnel of light, greet a golden angel, or feel a fluffy cloud:  he simply “left” himself and, in a state of utter weightlessness, peered down on his body as would an outside observer.  Maybe that’s why dad didn’t like us talking to Martin about death: Dad wanted us to hear about St. Peter and heaven and departed relatives.

The trouble with Martin was that one never knew when to believe him.  Heck, we barely knew who he was.  Ephemerally at least, he’d been my aunt’s boyfriend; then, when she dumped him, he’d never gone away: he moved in with my other aunt, a single mother, and helped care for my young cousin.  Martin was present every Thanksgiving and Christmas, but neither got nor gave gifts.  A transplant from North Carolina, he had daughters somewhere—either the Carolinas or Virginia—and had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an achievement he was quite proud of.  He didn’t work.  Didn’t own a car.  And didn’t seem to have money.  His singular ability to access death could’ve been, for all we knew, lifted from a sci-fi novel.  Nevertheless, I believed him.

Ten.  That’s how old I was when I saw a dead body I wasn’t supposed to see.  A right turn on I-85, heading north, highway stretching to where sky and land sandwiched together.  I was in my school outfit, backpack in my lap.  Mom was in her tennis getup, checking the rearview mirror.  Traffic was slowing and stopping.  To my left was a vast gray sheet held up by blank-faced men.  Behind it, a woman.  Or what was left of a woman.  Arms and legs bent at impossible angles; head sagging, possibly unattached; a bloodied skirt lifted by the breeze.  Someone’s mom.  Or sister.  Or wife.  Or girlfriend.  Or daughter.  Here one minute, gone the next.  This wasn’t dignity.  This was mean and messy.

Death, they say, is not only universal but also the great leveler: it befalls kings and paupers, rich and poor, wise and foolish.  Solomon, Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Napoleon: all died despite their glory in life.  What I never understood, and, frankly, still don’t, is why folks pretend death doesn’t happen.  The person who ignores death is delusional at best, narcissistic at worst.  Death is our sole commonality, the thing in this world we all await, about which we may commiserate.  It’s what makes us human.  I daresay one can’t fully love a person without knowing that person is temporary.

Francis Bacon once declared, “The contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak.”  Weak it may be to the healthy and fit, but to the ill and ailing it seems only natural.  The person who claims he doesn’t fear death is either a liar or an incorrigible maniac—or else a coward, too faint-of-heart to face the facts.  Bacon himself had the good fortune of dying in two to three days, having contracted pneumonia while conducting an experiment in the snow.  Willfully blind to his fate, lying on his deathbed, he penned a letter to his friend, Thomas Howard, expressing relief that he hadn’t suffered the fortune of Caius Plinius, “who lost his life by trying an experiment about the burning of Mount Vesuvius.”

After surgery, I, like Bacon, was bedridden.  Soon a phone call would tell me one of two things: that I was okay, my cancer hadn’t metastasized, or else I wasn’t okay, I needed chemotherapy and my chances of living another two years were below fifteen percent.  A glued-together wound, resembling fat, blue, puckered-up lips, took up the length of my chest.  Visitors asked to see it and then regretted their request when I rolled up my shirt, revealing a moon-shaped, smurfy smile.  When the visitors left, and I was alone again, alone and quiet, I imagined what the malignancy would look like as it spread through my body, which I conceived of as a mini mine field: tunneled with small explosive cancer clusters about to be detonated.  How could this shell—which once ran a mile in under four-and-a-half minutes—expire?

I’m not in my brain but somewhere lower: near the chest, maybe, or the gut.  I couldn’t, for instance, stop a dream even if I wanted to.  Which is odd, because it’s my brain that’s dreaming—not someone else’s.  The brain works independently of me, or, to be precise, of what I perceive to be me: it’s like an unmanned motor boat zipping on the water.  Occasionally one of my siblings, or an old friend, will recall some long-ago event, which I’d otherwise forgotten, and then, suddenly, I’ll remember.  The brain has stored this memory somewhere—somewhere not readily accessible—but I, wherever I am in this shell, never felt compelled to find it.  The thought just exists up there, waiting.

It’s the soul, I suppose, that’s me.  When I lie awake at night and contemplate this interim body, which I inhabit the way a renter inhabits an apartment, I locate my self—that subjective knowing ego—whole and center, as though the brain, convenient as it is, has a mind of its own.  To be sure, I can borrow this organ when I study or otherwise require deep reflection; but when I tire of thinking, when I want a break, when I lean back from my desk, I’m very aware that I, my self, am moving from the head to just above the torso, where I belong.  And when I experience joy, compassion, anguish, despair—when, that is, I feel—it’s never with my head but with something deep within my bosom.  How does one explain this?  Perhaps we’re all antecedent to the body: little floating things confined to this definite, corporate form we didn’t choose, waiting, like thoughts, to be accessed—or released.    

Opossums, more commonly known, in the South, as “possums,” are, I’m told, a delicacy.  Nina’s got a cookbook that says so, though she claims she’s never cooked or eaten one.  I have my doubts, since my dad grew up eating squirrel, which, I think, is more revolting because squirrels are cute and handsome, whereas possums have that eerie look I associate with demons and devils—and masks.

At seven, I persuaded my brother to take a life.  A possum’s life.  It was a horrible affair, really.  One that, even today, is difficult to own up to.  Brett, being the gullible little brother he was—I convinced him once that the shadow-puppet giant who lived on the ceiling would kill him in his sleep—stomped on a squeaking pile of pine-straw while I looked on, presumably to punish him if he disobeyed.  Of course, the squeaking didn’t belong to the pine-straw, but to a tiny nest of baby possums underneath.

For some reason, I was initially proud of what I’d done, and, hours later, said as much to my mom.  Horrified, she made me show her the nest, since I’d “cried-wolf” before.  Sure enough, there, in the pine-straw, lay a bloody baby possum, whimpering, dying.

My first defense was I hadn’t done anything.  Brett had.  I’d simply stood by and watched.  Mom was smarter than that.  I don’t remember what she said—only that, once she said it, I began to cry.  And couldn’t stop.

It was this event, this murder of an innocent, that brought about my general appreciation for original sin, or least for the idea of innate human depravity.  Humans, you might say, are born rotten—so much so that most of us, in our youth, could stomp infant possums to death without understanding the wrongness of our action.  No doubt I regretted this behavior—this actus rea—but not because I felt guilty: it was, in effect, because I feared punishment—some combination of mom’s wrath and her spank-happiness.  A parent’s role is, among other things, to tame a child’s destructive impulses.  That’s what mom did—without succumbing to her own elemental aggressions.

She called the Chattahoochee Nature Center, a local environmental organization, and a worker there explained how to save the baby possum.  This, then, became my task, my agonizing punishment: to keep the possum alive.  Being intimate with death is one thing; being intimate with suffering quite another.  When I scooped the trembling creature up to my palm, it emitted a sad, pitiable squeak.  “Everything’s okay,” I whispered, “I’m not here to hurt you”—a funny assurance coming from the kid who’d just ordered its murder.

If truth be told, I wished I’d just destroyed the thing.  Better dead than in this wretched condition.  Still, the way it looked at me—its beady, searching eyes perusing my face—reminded me of how Ansley, my little sister, then only a year old, looked up at mom when she wanted to be fed.

I placed the creature in a shoe box, which I tucked beneath a shelf in my parents’ closet, the darkest place in the house.  More than anything, the possum needed darkness and silence.  I dug a hole in the backyard, tied two twigs together in the shape of a cross, and arranged a constellation of stones around what would’ve been a grave.  But the thing didn’t die.  It healed so well that, the next morning, it was squirming and scurrying and dad needed a net to contain it.  Even after the possum was free in the backyard, I left the grave untouched, a reminder that all things, even possums, eventually come to an end.

My Southern upbringing was all about learning how to die.  Like the Greek Stoics, Southerners believe in cultivating virtue, improving life, and, above all, accepting mortality.  Liberated from urban distractions, tied to land and home, they regard humans as custodians of the past; they keep gardens, preserve antiques, record lineage, mark battlefields, and salvage the efforts of planters, carpenters, raconteurs, and architects; they ensure, in short, the availability of history.  This can lead to nostalgia for times they never knew, bad times, ugly times, which is to say that this can cause Southerners to overlook—or, worse yet, revise—the inconveniences of history: slavery, for instance, or civil rights.  All the same, the Southern tradition, burdened as it is by various conflicts, retains virtues worth sustaining: community, family, religion, husbandry, stewardship.  These customs, however vulnerable, hardly need guardians.  They will, I suspect, persist, in some form or another, as long as humanity itself; for they are practical, permanent ideals—tested by generations—which people fall back on during disorienting times.  In a region haunted by racial brutality, these principles are, and have been, a unifying reference point, a contact zone where cultures—black, white, and Hispanic—share something spiritual despite their differences.

Living history, not just studying it, but consciously living it, is neither wicked nor wrong; the chronic, urgent awareness that everything you know and love will come undone, is not, I think, misguided, but utterly essential.  There’s something beautiful about facing the insurmountable.  When the world’s fleeting, death becomes a liberating, albeit terrifying, reality.  It throbs and pulsates and beats beneath the skin, inside of which we’re all raw skeleton.

For all this, however, I wasn’t ready.  Didn’t want to die.  Couldn’t even conceive of it.  The twenty-something years my family had been teaching me about death amounted to, not nothing, but not much, either.  Death, I suppose, is a hard thing to accept, and an even harder thing to fight, since fighting seems so pointless: deep down, you know you can’t win.  You might prevail once.  Maybe even twice.  But ultimately it’ll beat you.  It almost did me.

Friends ask how it feels to “beat” cancer.  I never can answer—not satisfactorily—for the experience is more like submission than competition: it’s a manifold process of coming to terms with the body, a thing doomed to decay.  When the doctor—Dr. Danaker—called to say the lymph nodes were benign, that the cancer hadn’t spread, I shocked him with a tired reply:  “Oh, good.”

“This is great news,” he assured me, as if I needed reminding, as if I hadn’t appreciated—indeed, hadn’t understood—how lucky I was.

“I know,” I said.

At this, the good doctor seemed annoyed.  “Ungrateful kid,” his tone implied.  But I wasn’t ungrateful.  Nor ecstatic.  I was, simply put, unbound—by life, by people, by things.  His take was that I had another chance, a fresh start, that I could put this nonsense behind me and move on.  My take was that, having embraced impermanence, I was done protecting myself from suffering, done seeking security through delusion, done dislocating from fate, destiny, providence, what have you.

Done: this, it is true, is weary resignation.  Yet it’s more than that: it’s a sweet but unhappy release, a deliverance, an unmasking.  Almost paradoxically, it’s freedom within—and despite—limitation.

What’s more exhilarating than that one should die?  What’s more mysterious, more horribly electrifying?  As one writer, Paul Theroux, has put it, “Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.”  That is how you cope with this chilling, daunting, stupefying phenomenon: you do it every day until it’s serviceable and aesthetic, until at last you won’t know, can’t know, when it happens, until it’s pleasurable, a masterpiece, sublime in its regularity.  You keep it close, so close it becomes part of you, so close it’s at your disposal, so close that without it, you’re nothing, nothing if not boringly, thoughtlessly, mechanically alive, which is just another way of being dead.  You train and train and then it comes.

Pantry, 1982

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on July 24, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

 

A box of cereal, stale, ants running

Up the side, two brown bananas that

 

He says cleanse the pores

(If rubbed thoroughly),

 

An unwrapped chocolate bar

And a plethora of cans, unopened:

 

In a locked pantry, Little Maddy sits

Plucking the stems

 

Off Granny-Smiths.  Just ten more

Minutes.  Maddy, weary, wondering

 

Just when daddy would come home.

Time: the pantry is unlocked

 

And out comes light

And apples and, lastly, Maddy.

 

Daddy reaches

For the two rotting bananas,

 

Notes can upon unopened can,

Unwraps the chocolate bar,

 

Smears chocolate on his fingers,

Stops, thinks how unlikely it is

 

For apples to lose their stems.

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