See Disclaimer Below.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Four Poems by Julia Nunnally Duncan

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on July 26, 2017 at 6:45 am

Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essay writer who has authored nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her works often reflect upon people and events from the past, and she draws inspiration from her Western North Carolina upbringing. She holds an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College and lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

The following poems come from Julia Nunnally Duncan’s latest book, A Part of Me, published by Red Dirt Press.

Note:  Julia Nunnally Duncan will read poetry from her latest book, A Part of Me, at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in the Poetrio event, 3:00 p.m. on August 6, 2017, Sunday. Address: 55 Hayward Street, Asheville, NC. For more information contact Malaprop’s at: 828-254-6734.

Click here to purchase on Amazon

His Song

He sat at the back of the classroom
during the weeks of our course
and remained quiet,
a student older than the rest.
He put forth his best effort
at grammar exercises and essay writing—
the Composition and Rhetoric assignments
that must have seemed unfair
to a man whose life work would be
to install and repair electrical systems.
Yet he was eager to learn,
occasionally staying after class
to ask if he was on the right track.
And when for his process speech
he came in with a guitar
and pulled up a stool,
I feared it would be hard
for him to speak in front of the group.
But after a few words about how to string
and tune a guitar,
he began to sing a country ballad
with lyrics so romantic and a voice so tender
that I blushed.
When he finished his song,
the class was hushed for a moment
and then burst into applause.
All I could whisper was beautiful
and ask, “Where did you learn to sing that way?”
He didn’t say anything,
and his eyes didn’t meet mine.
His face down, he went quickly to his seat
to reclaim his humble place
at the back of the room.
That was years ago,
and though now I don’t recall his name,
that day and his song
will stay in my memory.

 

December Evening

I was young and a little afraid
of the residents at the nursing home
who sat in the dining hall,
awaiting the Christmas treats my church had brought.
A white-haired lady growled, “I don’t want no cake!”
but devoured a hefty piece and would have eaten more
if not for the staff who feared it would make her sick.
They all ate quickly,
then gathered in the common room
where an upright piano stood beside the decorated tree.
I played Christmas carols and familiar melodies—
“Away in a Manger” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
A man stooped over me and crooned perfect lyrics
while others in their pajamas made up words as they went.
And so we spent time sharing food, and gifts, and song,
my fear of them gone,
that December evening forty years ago.

 

Paul’s Prayers

Often the preacher asked my uncle Paul
to lead us in prayer,
and our Baptist congregation grew still.
But when Paul’s baritone voice filled the sanctuary,
those compelled by the Spirit exclaimed Amen.
Paul proclaimed our gratitude for God’s blessings
and begged protection for our boys in foreign fields,
the Vietnam War having spilled the blood
of some from our community.
Two decades before,
Paul had been a young man
serving in North Africa in another war
that mangled his shoulder with shrapnel.
For weeks he lay in a VA hospital
and then fell back into his dissolute life.
But one day he found salvation
and thus began to pray for himself
and for all the rest of us.
Paul knew how to do it well.

 

President Ulysses S. Grant Three Days Before
Death From Throat Cancer July 20, 1885

Maybe because he was a skilled horseman
or that he loved his wife Julia so dearly
or that his last name was the same
as that of my great-great grandfather Samuel Bruce Grant
who also fought in the Civil War,
though on the opposing side—
maybe these are reasons why
I have looked at Ulysses S. Grant
not as an enemy of my Southern ancestors,
but as possible distant kin.
In the photograph
he sits in a rocking chair
on the front porch of his country home,
and he is surrounded by family.
His shoulders are draped in a shawl,
his face looks pale and gaunt,
and his beard has grown gray;
but his shiny top hat
seems a fashionable affront to the disease
that will soon take him away.
While the young girls in the picture look bored,
the women smile lightly,
as if to add an impression of gaiety to the scene.
But it is in Grant’s face—
his weary expression—
that I glean the truth.

Advertisements

The Circuitous Path of Papa and Ezra

In Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Politics, Western Civilization, Writing on May 24, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

Ernest Hemingway, fresh off his marriage to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, arrived in Paris in 1921. Paris was a playground for writers and artists, offering respite from the radical politics spreading across Europe. Sherwood Anderson supplied Hemingway with a letter of introduction to Ezra Pound. The two litterateurs met at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and struck up a friendship that would shape the world of letters.

They frolicked the streets of Paris as bohemians, joined by rambunctious and disillusioned painters, aesthetes, druggies, and drinkers. They smoked opium, inhabited salons, and delighted in casual soirées, fine champagnes, expensive caviars, and robust conversations about art, literature, and the avant-garde. Pound was, through 1923, exuberant, having fallen for Olga Rudge, his soon-to-be mistress, a young concert violinist with firm breasts, shapely curves, midnight hair, and long eyebrows and eyelashes. She exuded a kind of mystical sensuality unique among eccentric highbrow musicians; Pound found her irresistible.

Pound was known for his loyalty to friends. Although he had many companions besides Hemingway—among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, T.E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Walter Morse Rummel, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, and Malcolm Cowley—Hemingway arguably did more than the others to reciprocate Pound’s favors, at least during the Paris years when he promoted Pound as Pound promoted others.

Pound was aware of Hemingway’s talent for publicity: he and Hemingway had combined their genius to promote Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hemingway introduced Pound to William Bird, an American reporter who arranged to publish an autobiographical piece about Pound’s childhood. Bird was instrumental to the eventual publication of Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound, for his part, secured for Hemingway a position as assistant editor of The Transatlantic Review. Their relationship matured into something symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

Pound edited Hemingway’s work, stripping his prose of excessive adjectives. Hemingway remarked that Pound had taught him “to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” Unlike, say, Conrad Aiken or Robert Frost, who resisted Pound’s editing, Hemingway acquiesced to Pound’s revisions. In exchange, Hemingway taught Pound how to box. He acknowledged that the scraggly Pound had “developed a terrific wallop” and had “come along to beat the hell wit the gloves.” Hemingway worried that “I will get careless and [Pound] will knock me for a row of latrines.” He even treated Pound to a night at the prizefights to brighten Pound’s spirits as Pound battled various illnesses.

Pound, however, grew disillusioned with Paris, where his friends were gravitating toward socialism and communism. Paris, he decided, was not good for his waning health. Hemingway himself had been in and out of Paris, settling for a short time in Toronto. In 1923, accompanied by their wives, Pound and Hemingway undertook a walking tour of Italy. The fond memories of this rejuvenating getaway inspired Pound to return to Italy with his wife Dorothy Shakespear in 1924. They relocated, in 1925, to a picturesque hotel in Rapallo, a beautiful sea town in the province of Genoa, on the bright blue Tigullio Gulf.

Pound found the weather in Rapallo to be soothing and agreeable. It was Hemingway who had first recommended this scenic spot, having visited Sir Max Beerbohm there years before. Hemingway’s tales of the sunshine, swimming, tennis, and other outdoor activity in Rapallo appealed to Pound, who fancied himself an athlete. The fact that his mistress Olga frequented Italy—where her father owned a house—made Rapallo all the more desirable, as did Dorothy’s seeming willingness to share her husband with his lover.

The friendship remained intact as Pound settled into Rapallo. About to vacate Europe for Key West, Hemingway dashed off a missive to Pound that began “Dear Duce” and then boasted about how Papa, as people had begun to call Hemingway, was “going to know everything about fucking and fighting and eating and drinking and begging and stealing and living and dying.” Gradually, though, the Pound-Papa gulf widened.

The move to Italy also effectively terminated Pound’s glory years in Paris, about which Hemingway wrote affectionately:

So far we have Pound the major poet devoting, say, one fifth of his time to poetry. With the rest of his time he tries to advance the fortunes, both material and artistic, of his friends. He defends them when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. He sells their pictures. He arranges concerts for them. He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying and he witnesses their wills. He advances them hospital expenses and persuades them from suicide. And in the end a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.

This last line is both teasing and fitting because there was, in fact, at least one assailant in Paris who didn’t refrain: a man who attempted to stab Pound at a dinner party hosted by the surrealists.

Hemingway guessed that Pound might stay in Italy “sometime” even if he took “no interest in Italian politics.” Hemingway was right about Pound’s love for Rapallo but wrong about his political affinities. More than anything else, Italian politics—and the rise of fascism—damaged Hemingway’s regard for Pound, who became a zealous supporter of Mussolini and a reckless trafficker in conspiracy theories.

Hemingway grumbled that if Pound “actually and honest to God … admire[d] and respect[ed] … [Mussolini] and his works [then] all I can say is SHIT.” Hemingway, true to character, remained manfully playful, stating, “I will take practical steps by denouncing you here in Paris as a dangerous anti-fascist and we can amuse one another by counting the hours before you get beaten up in spite of your probity—which in such a fine country as it must be would undoubtedly save you.” Such slight criticisms may have been colored with a lighthearted tone, but the disapproval was plain.

When Hemingway and Guy Hickock visited Pound in northern Italy in 1927, Pound was living in self-imposed exile. Hemingway had recently converted to Catholicism and was enjoying renewed fame after the publication of The Sun Also Rises. He divorced and remarried that year, offering Hadley a portion of the profit from The Sun Also Rises as part of their divorce. Pound, meanwhile, was immersing himself in political theories that likely baffled Hemingway as much as they angered him.

Shortly after the stock-market crash in 1929 and the onset of a worldwide economic crisis, Pound took to writing in Italian. Mussolini’s March on Rome had occurred seven years earlier, and since then he had assumed dictatorial control of Italy, suppressed opposition parties, and built a police state. Pound was enthralled. He met Mussolini in 1933, peddling strange monetary schemes to the fascist leader.

In 1933 Pound and Hemingway exchanged letters that highlighted their diverging attitudes toward Mussolini, fascism, and government. Pound, who’d embraced wild and polemical speculations about the economic theories of the American Founders—Jefferson in particular—began to decry capitalism and taxation while celebrating fiat currency and a convoluted system of state central planning. “Since when are you an economist, pal?” Hemingway mocked. “The last I knew you you were a fuckin’ bassoon player.” Hemingway offered Pound some money, sensing that money was needed, but Pound declined it.

Pound was now enamored with Il Duce; Hemingway was furious. Hemingway hated government, he told Pound, and preferred organized anarchism and masculine sport to statist ideology. Hemingway saw through Pound’s charlatanic flourishes and economic fallacies and accused Pound, quite rightly, of lacking clarity. Yet Pound’s admiration for Hemingway’s work did not diminish, and Pound, ever devoted, included Hemingway in an anthology that he was then editing.

Possibly the last time Pound and Hemingway saw each other, they were having dinner with Joyce on a warm summer night in Paris. Pound allegedly bloviated about economics and the decline of art and European civilization, and Hemingway and Joyce feared that Pound had gone mad. The date and details of the dinner are a matter of debate, as is the veracity of any account of that evening. But one thing is certain: Hemingway was frustrated with Pound’s embrace of Italian fascism. By the time Pound voiced support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, putting him once again at odds with Hemingway, their once thriving friendship had deteriorated beyond repair.

The falling out was no secret, and other writers took sides. William Carlos Williams wrote to Pound in 1938, saying, “It is you, not Hemingway, in this case who is playing directly into the hands of the International Bankers.” Hemingway conveyed his concerns about Pound to their friend Archibald MacLeish:

Thanks for sending the stats of Ezra’s rantings. He is obviously crazy. I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing [sic] and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement [sic] should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier haveing [sic] Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway was referring to Pound’s notoriety as a propagandist for radio and newspaper during the Second World War.  When he received transcripts of Pound’s radio broadcasts, he surmised that Pound was “obviously crazy” for espousing such “vile, absolutely idiotic drivel.” Pound was a “crazy … and harmless traitor,” Hemingway concluded, and an “idiot” with a “distracted mind” who “ought to go to the loony bin.” And that’s precisely where Pound ended up: He was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, in 1945.

Pound’s friends put their reputations at stake to help him. MacLeish, expressing both love and admonition, dashed off these words in a missive to Pound:

… your information is all second-hand and distorted. You saw nothing with your own eyes. And what you did see—Fascism and Nazism—you didn’t understand: you thought Musso belonged in Jefferson’s tradition and God knows where you thought Hitler belonged. I think your views of the history of our time are just about as wrong as views can be. But I won’t sit by and see you held in confinement because of your views. Which is what is really happening now. I am doing what I am doing partly because I revere you as a poet and partly because I love this Republic and can’t be quiet when it violates its own convictions.

MacLeish helped to orchestrate Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s, drafting a letter to the government on Pound’s behalf that included Hemingway’s signature, along with those of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. A year later Hemingway provided a statement of support for Pound to be used in a court hearing regarding the dismissal of an indictment against Pound.

Hemingway, who was now living in Cuba, did little else to help Pound. More for practical reasons than personal conviction, Hemingway, who was himself targeted by the American government, refused to sign a petition of amnesty for Pound. The petition had been Olga’s idea, and Hemingway didn’t believe the American people would rally behind the desperate pleas of an adulterous lover. Hemingway never visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, but he did tell Pound, via Dorothy, that he had read and enjoyed The Pisan Cantos. And when he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Hemingway announced that the year was good for releasing poets, a not-so-slight reference to his old friend.

Hemingway awoke on the morning of July 2, 1961, put a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun to his head, and, alone in the foyer of his home, blew his brains out. He was 61. Pound’s friends and family didn’t tell him about Hemingway’s death, but a careless nurse did, and Pound reacted hysterically. The older of the two, Pound, at 72, was free from St. Elizabeth’s, where he’d spent 12 solemn years. He had returned to his beloved Italy to finish out his long and full life. In the autumn of 1972, he died peacefully in his sleep in Venice, the day after his birthday, which he’d spent in the company of friends.

Dysfunction Always Travels

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on April 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke early to get ready. It was the first day of spring break of my first year in high school and it had been decided long ago that we would, as a family, drive to South Padre Island, Texas, one of the great southwest meccas of spring breakers, young and old. Specifically, everyone in my high school went to “Padre” for spring break. While I had been there before, this would be my first time as a high schooler and thus was particularly noteworthy, based on what was happening to the girls in my class. Their bodies had seemed to get slimmer, their legs got longer and some more important areas of their bodies were growing faster than I could keep track of. Daydreams of these girls and their new bodies shoehorned into tiny bikinis clouded my night and consumed my days as the date of our departure neared. Now that day was finally here and to say I woke up excited is not to fully explain what was going on in my body.

I hadn’t seen my father before I went to bed the night before and made the assumption that he was out drinking and would be slow to get up to pack the Ford Country Squire Wagon for the long 14-hour drive. I was wrong. He was up early, just after me, and when he saw me awake he yelled at me to come help him. I knew what he was calling me for. As with every other trip we had taken by car, I had to gather up all the bags that were packed the night before. I was one of the men in the house and that was what was expected of me.

As I gathered the suitcases, I pondered a question that has been asked since the first time man moved from place to place: Why do women pack so much more than men? I carried one suitcase after another out to the driveway as I saw my father mixing a screwdriver in the kitchen. He knew that it would take me fifteen minutes or so to get all of them out by the car, so he had time for a little hair of the dog. I reported back to him when I had them all ready for the pack and he swallowed the last bit of his drink, smiled and said: “Orange Juice, great way to start the day.” We both laughed as he led me outside to help him get the bags on the roof of the car. I handed each bag up to him as he placed them like puzzle pieces within the confines of the luggage rack. Sober, drunk or hungover, my father took great pride in packing the car. When he had completed packing for some trip or another he would always get down from the roof of the car to admire his work. It was, in fact, amazing that he could fit that much in that small of a space and have it be so well organized. The load on the car could not have been stacked better by the Egyptian pyramid builders.

“Who else could pack a car like that?” he stated proudly.

Next came the ropes.

“Son, go in the garage and get those tie downs,” my father told me.

We would be traveling on the highway and I was sure at speeds much higher than the limit of the law and possibly of the car itself, so the bags needed, no matter how perfectly they were packed, to be tied down.

I was there and back in seconds, wanting the praise of my father, but he was too busy mixing another screwdriver to get him through the tie-down process to come. After a quick chug of his drink he came back out and first tied one end of the rope to the front of the luggage rack and then, with my help, began to loop the rope though the railings from side to side until the rope was at the back end. He looped the rope twice around the back of the rack.

“Let’s leave the tie down loose for now as the girls might have some more to pack,” he said.

More to pack? More to pack? Were we going to tie granny’s rocking chair down so she could sit on the roof on the way to “swimming pools and movie stars”? The car already looked as if we were fleeing the dust bowl, but he was probably right.

He scurried back into the house for his third screwdriver. It was only 7:30 am. I followed him in and went to watch TV, as I knew, from experience, that it would be some time before the family girls would be ready. After about thirty minutes of TV time, I heard the rest of my family stirring and got up in anticipation of finally beginning our fourteen-hour pilgrimage to Padre Island for a week of sun, sand, and bikinis. In reality, it took another thirty minutes to get everything ready and in the car but finally we were driving out of our driveway, on the side roads and eventually onto I-35 toward the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

Once on the highway, my father handed me his prized doctor’s bag that held his whiskey, vodka, mixes, and glasses, asking me to pour him a small Chivas. I had been the “Keeper of the Bag” for a couple of years so I knew exactly what he wanted. A double shot of Chivas Regal scotch. He was ready to cover some ground and needed to get primed. I poured the drink and handed it up to him just as he accelerated far beyond the legal speed limit, finally feeling like himself again after the long night before.

First hour. First Scotch. At this pace it would not only be a long day, but night as well. I wasn’t concerned about our safety, as I had been mixing drinks for a while and had always arrived home safely. I assumed that he would not need a drink for a while so I dozed off to sleep, hoping that would make me stop thinking about the buxom bodies that would be wearing bikinis. Other than packing the car and mixing drinks, all I could think about was bikinis. It was hard to sit still in the cramped wagon, particularly as I had to shift positions regularly.

About an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fly by the back window. I focused on what it was as it slid down the highway and finally came into view. It was a suitcase moving as fast north as we were south. In fact, it looked familiar.

“It couldn’t be,” I thought.

It was.

It was one of my mother’s suitcases and the cars behind us were dodging it as if they were playing some weird game of bumper cars. The last car didn’t quite make its swerve fast enough and clipped the suitcase, causing it to open—well, more correctly, to explode, as clothes flew through the air. Some of my mother’s clothes landed on that car’s windshield and blocked the view of its driver for a moment. I saw him reach out his driver’s window, grab the clothes and pull them inside.

I was panicked. Should I say something or act as if I were asleep? In our family, “kill the messenger” was a sport and I didn’t want to be sacrificed. I quickly put my head down and pretended to sleep. Safety first, I decided. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my eyes longer than ten seconds when I heard a loud squeal from my part of the car. I guessed that my sister had seen the bag, so I acted as though I were just then waking up and asked her what was going on.

“All of our bags are falling off the roof!” she screamed.

I looked back and feigned surprise as I saw bag after bag fly off the roof and onto the highway. Some exploded on contact; others were hit by oncoming cars and exploded. Clothes of every sort formed a huge cloud on the highway. As my father looked in the rear view mirror he spilled his drink.

“Son of a bitch!” he screamed more at his crotch being covered in scotch than at the luggage flying off the roof. “What in the fuck is going on?” I continued to stare as each bag hit the highway. I was sure this would be the cause of a huge pile up, but the cars successfully negotiated the flying debris with little trouble.

When my father finally pulled over to the side of the road to assess the situation my mother was screaming, crying and shouting.

“My clothes are all over the side of the road!” she shouted, between her sobs and screams.

Somewhere, somehow, my father was always able to tune my mother out, that is until he wasn’t able to and then took matters into his own hands, literally. My father got out of the car, looked down the highway to see the bags and looked up at the roof of the car to see a tie-down rope flying loosely in the wind.

“God damn it, John!” he screamed. “You didn’t tie the rope tight enough and it came loose.” At that moment everyone stared at me. If they could produce fire from their eyes I would have been incinerated. My brain went into overtime as I searched my memory for what had happened when we were packing the luggage on the car. Then it came to me. My father had not tied the rope off since he didn’t know if everything was packed yet. Happy that I had figured it out and it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t considered that my father didn’t want it to be his fault either. I jumped out of the car to explain.

“Dad, remember when we were packing and you just looped the rope around the back rack to see if there was anything else that needed to go on the roof?” I asked.

“What? Don’t blame this on me, you son of a bitch,” he said as his left hand drew back, came forward, and hit me in the face. I fell on the ground as my cheek stung as though it had been burned in the sun for hours. I had become numb to the strikes but this time I wasn’t at fault. I knew I was right, but to go on would mean that this would get worse. I was so angry but couldn’t express it. All this emotion had to get out somehow so I started crying. That is how I dealt with my anger from that moment on. My father seemed to never hit me when I cried and it didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern.

“Now you get started down the highway picking up all the clothes you can find and bring them here. I’ll get the suitcases back to the car so you can repack everything,” he said. “Stop crying and get up and get moving.”

I got up slowly and started walking down the shoulder of the highway as cars whooshed by me at breakneck speed, some drivers honking and laughing as they saw the clothes and the suitcases. This was going to be embarrassing since I had to retrieve clothes belonging to my older and younger sister, as well as my mother. I was right to be concerned. The first piece of clothing I approached was one of my mother’s bras. I stared at it for a moment and wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. I knew then that this would be the first bra that I touched. Why did it have to be my mother’s? I grabbed it dutifully and went to the next. It seemed as though I were a magnet for undergarments; I soon had a handful of bras, panties and assorted underthings. I started back to the car with my first load and as I got close enough to the car for my sisters to see what I was carrying, they both screamed, ran at me, knocking me down and grabbing their panties and bras, leaving me with only my mother’s undergarments to place in the suitcase. If I wasn’t humiliated by then I certainly was now. I turned quickly to go back for more and saw that both sisters were on their way down the highway to get their own clothes so as not to risk my seeing their unmentionables. Fine with me. I would stick to the clothes and leave the rest for them.

As I arrived with my second load consisting mostly of my and my father’s clothes, I noticed my father sitting in the front seat of the wagon, car started and air conditioner on. He was pouring a drink, and I was pissed. All of this was his fault and yet I had to take the blame, risk my life on the shoulder of the highway and pick up clothes. I stared at him for a minute and then realized that I didn’t want another backhand so I turned to retrieve more clothes. After a couple of hours or so, and two drinks, we had finished collecting the clothes that could be found and had packed them back into their suitcases. My father stumbled out of the air-conditioned car, onto the hood, and up to the roof. I handed him up the bags and when I finished he tied them off.

“Get away from here, boy. You fucked it up last time. I’ll do it right this time,” he said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Go sit in the car with the girls.” I did as I was told and wedged myself into the back vinyl seat. It was midday and getting hot so the vinyl had heated up and burned as I sat. My father got back in the car, mixed another drink on his own, not allowing me to mix it for him, put the car in drive, and we were on the road again. I lay my head down, pissed that I was blamed for something I didn’t do and tried with everything I had to remember the bikinis I had imagined on the beach and in the hotels and, well, just about everywhere, but all that kept coming to mind was the sight of my mom’s bra and me carrying it up the highway.

 

Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Richard Posner is a Monster

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Scholarship, Writing on January 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

William Domnarski is probably right when he writes that Richard Posner, like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “seemed destined for a literary life.” Holmes modeled himself on Emerson; he was the class poet at Harvard and earned his reputation as a thoughtful if controversial man of letters who could write with panache.

Posner, who majored in English at Yale, modeled himself on Holmes. “Holmes,” Posner declared in a missive, “is the greatest jurist, at least of modern times, because the sum of his ideas, metaphors, decisions, dissents, and other contributions exceeds the sum of contributions of any other jurist of modern times.” Posner’s writing similarly stands out for its flair and confidence.

Both men extended their influence beyond their legal opinions and have contributed to philosophy, becoming provocative historical figures in their own right. Posner has correctly invoked Holmes as a pragmatist, even if Holmes avoided the designation and referred to William James’s pragmatism as an “amusing humbug.” A member of the short-lived Cambridge Metaphysical Club that birthed pragmatism in the 1870s — and which also included James and C. S. Peirce — Holmes at least imbibed the pragmatism that was, so to speak, in the Boston air. Posner’s pragmatism, however, is only tangentially related to the thinking of Peirce and James, and so one hesitates to call it pragmatism at all.

In a move that must irritate University of Miami professor, Peirce supporter, and Richard Rorty critic Susan Haack, Posner distinguishes his variety of pragmatism — what he calls “everyday pragmatism” — from philosophical pragmatism. His thesis is most pronounced in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy(2005). The quotidian pragmatism that inheres in the law is, in his view, practical and forward-looking and based on “reasonableness.”

It’s not always clear how this mode of pragmatism intersects with, or diverges from, the so-called traditional or classical pragmatism, though it differs markedly — and refreshingly — from what Haack labeled “vulgar Rortyism,” that Frenchified variety of structuralism that dispensed with truth as a meaningful category of discourse.

¤

One suspects, given his outsized ego, that Posner delights in having placed his stamp on legal pragmatism, thereby forcing perplexed students in philosophy departments to come to terms with his ideas and square them with not only Peirce and James but also John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and W. V. Quine.

Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting. You might see him as an erudite, spirited dandy playing the part of flamboyant intellectual; or, more cruelly, as a bitter sophist bent on celebrating his own idiosyncratic views and maliciously dismissing his opponents with callous words and harsh indictments. Certainly his gratuitous rhetorical attacks on the late Antonin Scalia warrant this latter take.

And yet the man speaks with a high, soft voice; loves and spoils his cat; and spends most of his time reading and writing. It’s hard to condemn such things.

Posner is on record as having fancied himself as not just equal to, but more intelligent than, Learned Hand and Henry Friendly — two giants of American law — because he considered himself more informed about economics. This is surprising, chiefly because his self-assessment occurred before he became a judge.

As a judge, Domnarski tells us, “he could seek to persuade his new judicial colleagues to follow him, so as to further shape the law as he saw it — in his own image.” He continues to shape everything, it seems, in his own image, including, perhaps, Domnarski’s biography, which he read both in draft form and as a final manuscript.

One wonders how heavily he edited his own biography — how much latitude he enjoyed in fashioning his story. He sat for interviews and emailed with Domnarski, which wouldn’t be unusual or improper had he not been a primary source of his own legend, as he certainly appears to have been. As a young man, Posner exercised his authority as president of Harvard Law Review to include certain content over the objections of his peers. Might he have done this with his biographer?

¤

Posner, an only child, is used to promoting himself, and his acquaintances at different stages of his life often note his arrogance. As early as high school, he would say “the Poze knows,” and called himself “the mighty one,” writing in yearbooks that he “welcomes you as a High Priest of Posner Worship.” You can write this off as playful, but you can’t write off the fact that he cites himself in cases more than any other judge — though not by name, Domnarski points out, as if to acquit him of unseemly motivations.

An editor of a peer-reviewed journal once complained that Posner had cited himself too often in a paper, to which Posner rejoined that self-citation was necessary because he had produced most of the relevant literature on the subject. “The Poze knows,” the footnotes might have read. Another time an exasperated Posner wrote to editors at Cambridge University Press, “Don’t you know who I am?” — the same remark that landed Henry Louis Gates Jr. in hot water under different circumstances.

Although Domnarski connected with over 200 people to piece together this book, Posner’s personal opinion of himself seems to control the narrative and crowd out contrary valuations that critics may have offered. It’s not that Posner’s accomplishments and reputation are unearned. He’s worked hard to become perhaps the best-known and most prolific federal circuit judge in our nation’s history, and his talents and learning are unquestionable and impressive. The person who emerges in these pages is exceptional at what he does, but difficult to like. He graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School but was not popular. He remains good with ideas — just not with people. He’d rather disseminate brilliant theories than keep them to himself, even when they’re in bad taste or poor form. Whether that’s a virtue or vice depends upon one’s priority for manners and decorum.

¤

Posner’s most remarkable and admirable quality, it seems to me, is his ability — even willingness — to accept constructive criticism in stride. He doesn’t take evaluations of his work personally, and he invites opposition to fine-tune and improve his ideas. He instructs his clerks to criticize his draft opinions line by line so that he can perfect his rationale. “[W]e should want” and “insist upon,” he wrote to a colleague, “challenge and criticism; the rougher the better; for one of the great dangers of achieving eminence is that people are afraid to criticize you and then you end up inhabiting a fool’s paradise.”

Posner has referred to himself as a “monster,” a characterization he’s also reserved for Wagner, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Proust, Kafka, and Michelangelo. The term thus seems like an odd form of self-approbation rather than regret or self-loathing. It accords with his grand notion that he is “a Promethean intellectual hero,” not just some federal judge who happens to be well read.

Posner remains “a writer first and a lawyer second.” He’s correct that, as he told one correspondent, “the modern practice of law does not offer a great deal of scope for the poetic imagination.” Law schools have divided faculty into fields and sub-fields, and specialists in different areas of practice are increasingly unable to speak to one another in a common idiom or with shared vocabularies. Posner studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, who directed Posner’s research on William Butler Yeats, so he knows a thing or two about the poetic imagination and memorable expression.

But maybe the law is not about poetic imagination. Maybe it requires a prosaic and mechanical mind that can dispassionately and without fanfare adjudge the soundness of legal arguments presented by the parties to a case. If so, Posner may have been better suited for a different profession, one he would have loved and within which he could have more appropriately flaunted his creativity. Being an English professor, though, would’ve been out of the question; he dismisses much of what English literature departments regard as scholarship as “bullshit.” He uses the same word to describe work in the legal professoriate, of which he was once a seminal figure. By age 30, in fact, he had achieved the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He cultivated the image of an iconoclastic rabble-rouser willing to subject all human activity to cost-benefit analysis. He popularized the law-and-economics movement and eagerly imparted that economic efficiency supplied the right methodology for describing and delineating common-law judging, which involved practical resolutions to concrete problems. The doctrinaire Posner of this period drifted far from the Communist roots of his mother. More recently, though, he’s alleged that capitalism is a failure and moved decidedly to the left on key issues.

Perhaps because of his haughtiness, the law can seem boring and routine without him. There’s something to be said for the color and liveliness he brings to his office, and for his belief that “the law really is a very limited field for a person of literary bent.” Domnarski’s treatment may seem deferential, but it doesn’t cover up Posner’s naked, sometimes brutal honesty. Posner is willing to say what others aren’t, and able to say it more eloquently.

If, as Domnarski avers, Posner considers the average lawyer to be like Bartleby or Ivan Ilych — fancifully tragic figures — then he must disdain or pity those lawyers who come before him in the courtroom and submit their briefs for his relentless scrutiny. The 1987 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary states that lawyers who argued before Posner found him to be “arrogant, impatient, dogmatic,” and “opinionated,” and that he “dominates arguments” and “cross-examines lawyers as if they were 1-Ls in a Socratic exchange with a professor.” The man is important, no doubt, but never learned how to play nicely.

Ever the Darwinian, Posner has suggested that great books prove their merit over time in the competition of the marketplace; perhaps his reputation will too.

Five Poems by Selma Mann

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

selma-mann

Selma Mann’s first book of poetry, Mourning Cloak, was published in 2013. She has poems forthcoming in Conclave, Red Dirt Forum and elsewhere. Her second book, Whimsical Warrior, will be released in spring 2017. An attorney by trade, her practice areas include land use and ethics. She reinvented herself as a poet in 2011 following a devastating series of losses. She resides in Newport Beach, California.

 

Alumna

I visited the large firm
where, as a fledging attorney,
I felt mercilessly forced
into the shape of a litigator,
a mold alien to my spirit.
I suspect my muse
miraculously maintained
my core,
guarding it,
until I could transform
to the person within,
urging me to seize
grief and enchantment,
as she patiently imparted
the language of the spirit,
enabling the alchemy
that translates my life
to poems.

 

Once upon a time

During my life as an attorney,
particularly as an ill-suited litigator,
which is not a sartorial comment,
I was repeatedly encouraged
to consider possibilities,
specters of catastrophic expectations,
labeling it risk assessment.
My outlook dwelled, quite comfortably,
in a community of like-minded colleagues and friends.
The process got a start in law school,
Socratic method sharpening analysis,
substituting questioning for assumptions,
even as it inexorably set aside my spirit,
any suggestion of miracles and magic.
Objective was to prepare for the bar exam,
tortuous final test,
orgy of ceremonial competition,
feeding frenzy of memory, analysis,
exhaustion and fear.

I innocently believed spending my day
pondering imaginary outcomes
didn’t leave a permanent imprint on my soul,
until my soulmate died.
Vulnerable and bereft, I surrendered to grief.
Fear insinuated itself among my thoughts
painstakingly disguising itself as logic and prudence
constricting me until I could hear only its hiss,
proclaiming omnipresence and reality,
as it barricaded connection and light,
assailed by visions of my own illness and mortality,
or, far worse, of those I love,
oppressed by weight of a future alone.

I wallowed in that tiny cell,
my world grew smaller,
until my muse illuminated a path
away from outcomes and the past,
grounded in the moment,
the journey within.
A floodgate of other memories poured over me
allowing my spirit to heal,
recalling life once upon a time,
when I was gifted with the magic of a soulmate.
The astounding privilege of raising two daughters,
time communing with second graders
teaching them to read, spell and compute,
even as they demonstrated more important lessons,
mastery over joy,
living in the present,
uncanny abilities to share their lives fully,
though our time together was defined to end,
nourishing my muse to survive her hibernation.

 

Moving on

It’s almost eight years
since the nightmare night
I came upon your lifeless body.
I’ve lived a separate lifetime
since that time,
changes building upon each other,
I learn to say “no”
to unwanted relationships,
swallowing guilt
for hurt feelings,
reluctant, against my will,
turn away from my career
as an attorney,
tripping over a calling as a poet,
unexpected passion in my path,
publishing a book,
seeing my poem/children fly
in lives of their own.
I notice men noticing me,
reminding myself that I get to choose,
suddenly aware of loneliness
lurking in my solitude,
feeling disloyal to you,
as possibilities of companionship
bring equal measures
of excitement
and disquiet.

 

Domesticated Monarchs

During my prior attorney-life,
I would not have believed,
however briefly,
in a domesticated butterfly.
Yet a magical Monarch
emerged from its chrysalis
as Donovan and I
watched, whispering,
inches away.
We carried the planter
to the garden,
on a mission of liberation,
but she remained in place
for several days,
undisturbed by our proximity,
as we hovered over her,
hoping she could fly.
The Monarch didn’t leave
until the anniversary
of the day my Love and I
were wed.
Little wonder I feel
a profound connection
to butterflies.
From time to time,
a Monarch in the garden
gracefully flutters to eye level
and remains, unperturbed,
as I stand transfixed,
within arms’ reach.
Could this be a descendant,
of the magical Monarch,
basking in my love and admiration,
feeling secure
in the safety of my garden,
predisposed to trust?

 

Arlington

Lives cut short
by war,
defending freedom
others’ greed for power,
gratitude mixed with tears
anger
sadness,
prayers for peace
echo,
whispers of wisdom
among leaves,
perfect order
blanketing chaos.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

“Fetish,” A Story by Amy Susan Wilson

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on November 2, 2016 at 6:45 am

Amy Susan Wilson

 

Amy Susan Wilson is author of Fetish and Other Stories, The Balkan Press, second edition, and of the forthcoming poetry collection Billy Ray. Her work has appeared in This Land, Southern Women’s Review, The Notebook, and elsewhere. She is Publisher, Red Dirt Press, LLC (www.reddirtpress.net) and Managing  Editor of Red Truck Review and Red Dirt Forum. A native Oklahoman, she holds degrees from The University of Oklahoma and Columbia University. Below is an excerpt from the second edition of Fetish and Other Stories.

It should have been a big clue that Jake had real-deal problems when I saw that his house was loaded up with pistols and too much toilet paper. You look in the kitchen cabinets for Campbell’s bean with bacon soup, some toothpicks or mustard, and all you see are those white rolls of Charmin. Try the screen behind the fireplace in the den—yep, loaded up with clean, dependable one-ply twenty-four packs.

Stupidly, I let all of this go.

I let it go that he had five cases of Charmin double rolls at the foot of his bed, brown bears dancing on each package as if in some state of religious ecstasy or just really glad to have their butts cleaned with something other than twigs and pinecones from the forest. Yes, I let all of this go.

Now the guns I understood. After all, Jake teaches gun safety protection at our Floyd Red River Technical College on I-40. And he is half owner of Jake and Pete’s Family Shooting Range just outside Floyd.

“These rifles, pistols, and such, are they loaded?” I asked the first time I went to his house.

“Just the ones I keep locked up in cases. All the guns in cases are kept in the hall closet or under my bed,” Jake assured. His hands were as thick as oak planks, his fingertips rough, calloused, as if he’d driven spikes into the railroad tracks during the nineteenth century. I couldn’t wait to feel his manly digits intertwine with my fingers.

Jake did not drink, so the guns seemed A-OK. He was a retired Oklahoma highway patrolman who owned a home with a foundation. He did not have a picture of John Wayne hanging over the fireplace in the den, and yes, Jake was twice divorced, but who isn’t these days? He was kind to his cocker spaniel, Boomer, his poodle, Sooner, and maybe even fed them too many Snausages because he loved those dogs so much. And as a big to-boot bonus, Jake could hold a conversation.

“Boomer just showed up one day,” Jake told me out on his backyard deck. That was the first time we grilled hotdogs. Jake would not let me do one thing to help. “You just keep still and look pretty,” he said.

“Yep, ole Boomer, he was limping in the middle of Dill Street by the north side of Mrs. Gundy’s house, so I put him in the truck and said, ‘C’mon, buddy, you’re living with me.’ Going on nine years now,” Jake said while grilling each dog so skillfully he could have been a TV chef on the Food Network channel.

Jake and I didn’t even leave his house that night. We talked well past 10 p.m., sitting on the backyard deck in his new yard chairs from Lowe’s. Crepe myrtles were outfitted with pink blossoms. I drank a Diet Coke with nothing mixed in it and laughed all night long. He even asked if he could kiss me. Wow, I have found one good man, one I can marry, not have to do much changing to, I thought while French kissing under the moon and stars and humidity. We could have the ceremony right here in his backyard. Reception too. Boomer could be the ring bearer; Sooner could give me away. Lavender bridesmaid dresses, matching lavender hats, dark purple pumps to offset each gown.

Looking back, what is really shallow of me but what really fooled me and sucked me in was that Jake not only could really kiss and talk, but he looked so normal, even handsome. He did not look like a toilet paper hoarder or a sexual freak. He worked out every morning from five to six at Family Fitness Aerobics Center here in Floyd, which is where I met him.

For a fifty-six-year-old man, he had the physique of a buff forty-five-year-old. He wore his black hair cropped short with short gray sideburns, and I was impressed that he worked out in his maroon University of Oklahoma T-shirt with sleeves, and gray Nike shorts, mid-thigh length. No tattoos or pinkie rings or gold chains or goatee or gray armpit hair hanging out of an orange tank top. No grunting like a constipated ape when lifting power weights. Oh, and his black twinkling eyes, so alert, alive, and radiating warmth.

Because he seemed so normal at first, I went out with him for a little over a month—the life cycle of a junior high romance, and this is okay in eighth grade. At fifty-two, and coming up divorced five years this August, I would have liked to have a bit more of a long-term relationship. I didn’t care about roses and candy, but just some little bit of long-term normalcy would have been nice. On the other hand, I count my blessings Jake and I only lasted five weeks.

“That’s why you didn’t notice the clues. I mean, he’s a closet toilet paper hoarder; he knew how to hide what he was hoarding,” my best friend, Patsy Lee, offers. “Then that sexual fetish freak-o thing sneaked up on you out of the blue. Nothing led up to letting you know it was going to happen, and really, no woman would have noticed the signs—not even Marg from CSI,” Patsy counsels. “And Marg notices everything.”

We are lounging in my new Barclay chaise loungers on my backyard deck at dusk and sipping peach zin. We watch two tweens amble down Emit Street while texting, one wearing a gray knit ski cap in the dead of July and carrying a boom box, a real retro deal these days with the kids. Patsy and I shake our heads, laughing. My purple petunias are the size of my fists—and if I buy one more gnome, gazing ball, or birdbath, my lawn will get major gaudy.

“Did you know Jake even had cases of toilet paper stashed in his little blue Ford Escort he parks up in his yard? You open the door, any of the doors, and rolls just cascade like rocks tumbling down a foothill at Lake Arbuckle. He didn’t have any TP in his Ford Escape, but that Escort was loaded like Fort Knox or the Charmin factory. TP in the laundry room, cases in that garage—even toilet paper stacked at the foot of his California king waterbed,” I whine to Patsy.

“How did that make you feel?” she asks, as if Dr. Phil himself.

I’ve known Patsy Lee twenty-two years. We’ve taught at Floyd Middle School together for that long, and she just lost her fiancé to Alzheimer’s thirteen months ago. Turned fifty-one alone last month, so I don’t tell her she sounds annoying when imitating the TV psychologist. She wants to get a master’s in counseling at Eastern Central University and become a bereavement therapist coach by the time she hits fifty-five.

“I am just so embarrassed,” I tell her. “There I was dating a hoarder of one ply and two ply TP, and I’m thinking, naïve me, that I’m going to be intimate with Andy Griffith straight from Mayberry. But no, the guy has a sexual fetish involving toilet paper. Here I am a certified middle school library media specialist in the Floyd School District, a 2003 Teacher of the Year nominee with two master’s degrees from Eastern Central University over in Adair. Lord, why did I get into the sack all naked—find myself almost letting him wrap me up head to toe like a mummy with TP?” I ask Patsy Lee.

As Patsy pours more peach zin, I explain, “I am usually a capable person. Did I ever tell you that I once steered a Cessna in the rain while my ex, Randy, puffed on his asthma inhaler? I do my own taxes without error even though I am a language arts person, not a math person. My people-detector is not really broken; it works well, usually, but not this time.” I sigh. I look down at my feet housed in my blue flip-flops, begonia-pink polish chipped off my left big toe.

Patsy is silent and touches my hand with an empathic therapy gesture, a technique she has no doubt learned in one of her ECU graduate counseling courses. The fireflies dart through the dark humid air, avoiding the bug zapper I won at Atwood’s. The moths draw to the purple glow of the device, and crisp radio static fries the dead night air.

“Remember when I spotted that shoplifter at Drug Warehouse and the security guard apprehended the Junior Service League-looking thirty-something gal who stole Aveeno, V8, and children’s Claritin? I usually spot weirdoes from a mile away,” I insist.

Patsy takes a big gulp of wine. “Well, you know Michelle Weaver, from around six years ago, in our ladies handbell group at church?” Patsy asks. “She was really smart. An Okataloa County Mensa member. But remember that new man, Peter, from Sunday school who said he had moved here from Denton? Wanted to get back to small-town living, lower property taxes? Well, he took her for steak at TJ’s Place then asked for five thousand dollars to invest in his prosthetic limb company. She gave him three thousand, then he left town as fast as he came. Flimflam. At least you didn’t get hooked into someone like him,” Patsy offers.

I stare at my neighbor’s clothesline, which they really use, then take in my larger-than-life, larger-than-the-Grand Canyon magnolia tree. It takes up half the north corner of the backyard. That tree, a miracle.

Patsy slaps a mosquito off her ankle. We switch from zin to Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper that we drink out of coffee mugs. Patsy likes the John Wayne one, and mine is the Starsky guy from Starsky and Hutch. At just 9 p.m., I have the yawns and am almost ready to hit the hay.

“So tell me one more time. When Jake got you all naked in bed he tried to wrap you in toilet paper like you were a mummy?” Patsy giggles.

I have been explaining this to her all day long. First on the phone, then she comes over to the house and I usher her into my den and explain all morning, then at lunch today at Cracker Barrel.

“Yeah, he tried to bind me up neck to ankles in toilet paper. I can’t make it any clearer. I was flint-skin naked, and no, he wasn’t drinking, neither one of us was drinking. While I was sloshing around on his waterbed, he whispers, ‘Hey, honey, stand up. Let me put something on you.’ ”

Patsy’s brown eyes bug out like pug eyes, as if she hasn’t already heard the story three times today.

“I thought he was going to put baby oil or lotion on my thighs. But he’s standing at the foot of the California king, and I’m standing with him, all naked of course. I see, in the glow of candlelight, he’s holding a toilet paper roll, the big double-size kind, and he begins to wrap my neck in the freaking toilet paper!”

“That’s just plain nuts!” Patsy exclaims. “Does he have a mental health history? I mean, not depression but hard-core insane stuff in his background?” Patsy blurts out. “This is as shocking as that sinkhole on Stanley and Tenth Street by Central Church of Christ—that sinkhole swallowing Mavis Butler’s blue Ford Fusion and her dog in broad daylight. Sinkholes starting to pop up in Floyd—now this toilet paper thing!”

This summer our Patsy Lee has been taking the courses Abnormal Psychology and Psychology of Human Aging at Eastern Central University on talkback TV at our tri-county area Red River Technical College. She is a sixth grade English teacher and unofficial detector of mental illnesses.

“So he just wanted to wrap you up like a mummy with that toilet paper?” She giggles again.

“Jake was breathing as hard as a blue heeler that had been herding sheep too long on a hot summer day,” I said. “He told me, ‘Baby girl, hold out your arms straight like two plyboards, hold them out like a Jesus cross. I’m going to make you my mummy-gal.’

“Oh gosh,” I tell Patsy, “His bedroom was so normal looking. The walls were painted beige, and there was a three-foot-long picture of ducks flying over cattails above the oak headboard. The tan wall-to-wall shag carpet was freshly vacuumed and the room smelled of neutral Febreze room deodorizer with a faint whiff of a Glade vanilla plug-in. Beige curtains, pine-green bedspread. Boomer slumbering on that brown football-shaped pet bed to the right of that glider rocker.”

Somehow, in the almost-dark of the bedroom, I ripped that toilet paper ring off my neck and found my shorts, tank top, and new Brighton purse all puddled on the floor by the glider rocker in the corner of the normal-looking bedroom by the normal-looking dresser.

“Got a yeast infection! Boy, how it burns!” I blurted. “Lots of pus squirting out to boot! Better book on home!” I said, butt naked holding my pink bra with sunny yellow butterflies imprinted on each cup.

“Huh?” Jake said, making a face like he’d just swallowed a horse pill that didn’t want to go down. “So, call me when it’s over? A few days from now?” he asked, the green candle still blazing a tiny stream of light.

“Will do, mister,” I said as I hauled ass into my granny panties, denim Bermuda shorts, and baby-blue tank top.

It was only 9:30 p.m. I had never really thought about it before, but I thought strange sex acts took place in the dead of night—not when the normal were eating spaghetti and watching a Netflix movie, or playing a little late-night Ping-Pong in the garage. I said the pus thing because I once read that a woman has to say something gross in order to stop a rapist from the act, even though Jake was not raping me.

Jake put on his shorts and walked me out to my little Grand Am like a perfect gentleman. He opened my car door and pecked my cheek before I sprang into the driver’s seat. Then he whispered, “If not you tonight, then another, sister.”

A shiver slithered like a black snake all the way down my spine.

“You just never can tell, can you?” Patsy says, eyeing the gnome by my birdbath, which carries a solar-powered lantern that glows in the dark. “Do you think he was one of those officers who played with women’s vulnerabilities when writing tickets? You know, sexually groped them if they looked illegal Mexican-like or too poor to pay a speeding ticket?”

By now it is totally dark, and people driving by Jake’s house over on Dill Street have no idea that he is a toilet paper hoarder and sexual foreplay freak, nor can they see all the rolls piled in that little blue Escort parked in his front yard.

“Have you thought of getting some counseling? I mean, you might feel better since it appears you now doubt yourself about men and suffer from self-esteem issues. The unexpected stresses the body,” Patsy offers, practicing her therapist-of-the-future voice.

“You know Patsy-Lou, I made a mistake any divorced woman could’ve made, and I will forgive myself for being an idiot. And dang, I’m lucky. All those guns carefully placed throughout the house, who knows what he could’ve done to me. Now I gotta go tinkle,” I say in my almost pissed-off tone, though I’m trying not to be mad at myself any longer.

I remember thinking I would never get over my divorce after twenty-four years of marriage, but I did. I’ll battle this, too. Randy found a girl on the Internet, an LPN from the Philippines in her late twenties. There he was, fifty-nine, looking like Grandpa Walton with Asian Mary Ellen.

In my Divorce Care Workshop over at Northridge Church of Christ on MacArthur, two other women were left for Internet mates here in just little old Floyd, America. Stopping for milk at Braum’s one day after work, I told myself, Look here, you’re not the only one to get left—you’re not so unique.

Five years later and I really am okay about it.

I tell myself now, Jo Anna Lizbeth Williams, you are not the only woman to encounter some strange guy during the AARP era; just let this go. Free your mind of him. You aren’t dead yet, and you’re only fifty-two.

“Sorry to be so self-obsessed today,” I apologize to Patsy as I slap a mosquito off my left elbow.

“Hey, I would’ve thought the guy was normal, too,” Patsy offers. “You know, Jo Anna, especially since he’s in Lions Club and heads up the lobster fundraiser for autism each July, who would have a clue about how weird he is? And you are truly blessed that he didn’t get rough.”

As I open the sliding glass door and walk into the house I think, Oh Lord, please let me learn to spot the weird men out there! And Lord, please let me not become a lady who wears Depends in middle age. These days, since the TP incident, I have to pee all the time, and I have hardly any ability to hold my bladder.

“Trauma, it’s trauma,” Patsy keeps saying even though I’m indoors.

Seated atop the new soft-flush toilet in my freshly painted peach bathroom, I turn the light off, the fan on. I pee in the dark and force myself not to look at the white two-ply roll.

 

%d bloggers like this: