To Zelda Fitzgerald from Jody Kennedy: loving in France, the androgynous spirit, and ruminations on being untamed in LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE.

Paper Dolls: A Love Letter for Zelda 

by Jody Kennedy

Zelda Fitzgerald, “Self-Portrait,” watercolor, probably early 1940s. Image from  Wikipedia

Zelda Fitzgerald, “Self-Portrait,” watercolor, probably early 1940s. Image from Wikipedia

“I'm so full of confetti I could give birth to paper dolls.”

—Zelda Fitzgerald

Dearest Zelda,

So how does one address the Original Flapper, “It Girl” (second to the actress, Clara Bow), and baby vamp? Maybe just start by saying that I was enamored with you once? Remembered you when I lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Paris, and Juan-les-Pins, and on visits to Lake Geneva, Cap d'Antibes, and Saint Raphael? Considered you part of the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club (along with Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and my maternal and paternal grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, among others)? Always wanted to be the happy-go-lucky version of you: the almost perfect WASP, well-heeled extrovert, the life of the party, flirting with waiters, dancing on tables, organizer of fabulous soirées, ballerina, goddess, inhaling Marlboro Reds and gin and tonics until in the end crashing and burning with you like Draper's beautiful boy, Icarus.


We were just kids when we met. I must have been around sixteen and you seemed forever immortalized at twenty-one. Like in that photograph of you and Scott posing in a car, your short hair hidden under a cloche hat and Scott's smile, contagious. It's strange to look back now and realize that you weren't much older than me though you seemed so grown-up, but doesn't everyone over nineteen seem ancient when you're still sixteen? I deliberately skipped over later photos of you looking puffy at Lake Annecy with Scott and then ten-year-old, Scottie, or you, a couple of years later, gaunt in a floral print apron standing with some paintings you'd entered in an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art or that other image of you wearing a long dress and white ermine coat next to a tuxedoed Scott, both of your faces strained and your hands, especially, noticeably clenched. You seemed to be apparitions of your former selves, like wax figures found at Madame Tussaud's in London or the Musée Grevin in Paris.


“I ride boys’ motorcycles, chew gum, smoke in public, dance cheek to cheek, drink corn liquor and gin. I was the first to bob my hair and I sneak out at midnight to swim in the moonlight with boys at Catoma Creek and then show up at breakfast as though nothing had happened,” you wrote in your high school journal. Ditto to most of it (said my maternal grandmother and me).


My attraction to you bordered on obsessive, the same way my attraction to the 1920s, Saint Paul, Paris, and Gertrude Stein's Lost Generation did. And there's still sometimes a feeling of being like Rip Van Winkle playing catch up after waking from a long slumber along with a sometimes still intense longing to travel back to those early days meeting you and Scott and some of the gang in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Maybe another part of my attraction to you was because of a certain air de famille. My maternal grandmother, ten years your junior, came of age not far from Saint Paul's Summit Hill neighborhood where you and Scott and Scottie, then a newborn, had been living at the time. My grandmother was the furthest thing from a WASP, grew up poor but, like you, bobbed her hair, wore pants, loved to drink and dance, and at fifteen fell in love with and quickly married her Scott, a local gangster who kept her supplied in stolen diamonds, furs, and bootleg liquor.


Scott was lucky to have seen you dance. My maternal grandmother, who died the year I was born and who I only knew through stories, talked about coming back in her next life as a professional dancer. As a young girl I dreamt of being a ballerina but was rarely comfortable in my body or while dancing. I imagined you dancing though, your petite and feline body the opposite of my Irish-German peasant build, the same build that effectively killed my ambitions of becoming a world-famous model at fourteen, which would have been my ticket out of high school and out of the small Midwestern suburb where I grew up.


Scott turned out to be your ticket out of Montgomery and out of Dixie. I can understand how you fell for him: his Yankee otherness, his sense of humor, and his poetic streak. I searched my small Midwestern suburb for a jewel like that but always ended up with a mouthful of heavy metal, generic greeting cards, and lukewarm Budweiser. A Scott came much later for me and, despite doubts about getting married, I said yes because I'd planned to make a respectable man out of him. He was going to be Peter Maurin to my Dorothy Day, Charles VII (the Victorious) to my Joan of Arc. Did you feel like you were acting a part when you married Scott in the vestry at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 2, 1920? A wedding in the vestry wasn't your dream. You wanted the whole Cathedral (and isn't a woman worthy of that?). “David,” the legend read, “David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama Nobody.”

Zelda and F. Scott, 1920: Photograph courtesy of Princeton University Library

Zelda and F. Scott, 1920: Photograph courtesy of Princeton University Library


EASTER, 1920 

for you, Zelda

Someone sent a lily and it made / the room smell so sweet / that first day of our honeymoon. / Lying in / bed the night before / watching you undress, / I noticed how flat and curvy / your stomach was, / just like a girl, I thought. / You disappeared under the covers / like the landscape in winter, / buried your face / between my legs and asked, / am I doing this right? / When you finished you rolled away / (pale from champagne) / and fell asleep / while I lay awake half the night, / my stomach tied up in knots / and certain that God had forsaken me.


We set up well-stocked bars: absinthe, brandy, bourbon, cognac, and seltzer delivered from Chez Jacques. On anniversaries we expected fresh cut flowers, boxes of chocolates, diamond pendant earrings, and other sweet nothings. We pulled on the skins of Rosalind (
This Side of Paradise), Sally Carrol (The Ice Palace), Gloria (The Beautiful and the Damned), Daisy (The Great Gatsby), and Nicole (Tender Is the Night). We broke expensive dishes and threw around curses. Prisoner and jailer (one and the same), we refused to give up East and West Egg. Where would we have gone anyway? Back to Montgomery and back to our mothers? (Our mothers, our mothers: sweet, controlling thrift sale lovers.)

*

This letter is also for all of those women whose love lives don't fit neatly into a New York Times Modern Love column. Confession: it was easier to love you, Zelda, from afar, one dimensional (sometimes two, like in that footage of you and Scott at Sara and Gerald Murphy's villa in Antibes). I hate to admit it but I don't think we would have gotten along. There'd been a breach of confidence in 8th grade when my girlfriends accused me of flirting with boys at the roller rink, which completely floored me since my own perceptions were otherwise. Though it may not seem like much to you, that wound lingered for many years and laid the groundwork for a lifelong distrust, fair or not, of women. Maybe I was flirting and my girlfriends had seen past my blind spot. Maybe my deeper fear was this: that we women can't fool other women as easily as we can fool men. Or maybe the conflict lessened my guilt as I soon began to choose boys over those friends.

*

We moved to Saint Paul and searched for your ghost, gave birth to girls named Scottie, Savanah Rose, and Scout. We cooked under the influence of Pinot Noir, burned the Easter ham, threw in the towel. We used words like intrigued, ghastly, cat's pajamas and bee's knees, and it was such a smashing party last night, don't you think so, darling? We built altars to Marilyn and Madonna, Clara Bow and Rihanna, stuffed our faces with macaroons, cashews, and coconut donuts. We were called jazz babies and the first American flappers. We never learned to drive or play the markets.

*

Jody Kennedy’s maternal grandmother.

Jody Kennedy’s maternal grandmother.

Most of the girls in the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club were afraid to be mothers. We: 1) avoided pregnancy at all costs. 2) had abortions. 3) left our children to be brought up by English nannies or left them temporarily or permanently like my paternal grandmother left my infant father at the Holy Innocents Home in Portland, Maine, or we left them during our stays at psychiatric hospitals or by our suicides. Most of the girls in the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club were generally more masculine than other women. We were called lesbians, bitches, sluts, tarts, troublemakers, and witches. What we lacked in maternal warmth we made up for in hyper-sexuality and goldmine diaries. (Scott didn't like your aggressive side and you called him a fairy on Rue Palatine.)


If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I'm convinced my last life was one of a man since much of this current one has been spent identifying as a man living in a woman's body. What does it actually feel like to be a woman or a man anyway? Is it really just the difference between skirts and pants, lipstick and combat boots and/or sexual preference? (The spirit is androgynous and all the rest is show business.) Or maybe it's simply a case of what Carl Jung called animus possession? Many of the girls in the Good Girls Bad Girl's Club seemed at times overly identified with our animus i.e. our masculine shadow. And when and if we became aware of the pattern, it was on us to begin the process of integrating the feminine and masculine sides of our psyche or risk being destroyed (jails, institutions, death) by said animus.

*

We left the East Coast and sailed to Le Havre, took trains to Paris and taxis to the French Riviera. We adopted words and expressions like: chez [insert favorite restaurant here], je ne sais quoi and apéritif. We lunched at the Murphy's Villa America, got tipsy and dove from cliffs on Cap d'Antibes during evening parties at Eden Roc. On beaches in Saint-Raphaël, we swam in the sea and in between reading Wharton and James, fell in love with dashing French military pilots. 

*


My French husband and I, married then six years, left the Midwest for France again and settled into a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins. Our building was a couple of blocks from the sea, fifteen minutes walk past Le Hemingway Bar and another five to the Villa St. Louis, now the Hôtel Belles Rives, where you and Scott spent the summer of 1926. Still a relatively new mom (our kids, two and four years old), I struggled with feelings of profound isolation and restlessness. Though deeply grateful to be able to stay home, if it hadn't been for my sobriety, English-speaking recovery meetings in Antibes and Valbonne, and nearby parks: the Jardin Pauline (across the street) and the Jardin de la Pinède, as well as the beach, I'm not so sure I would have made it. Maybe that sounds like a luxury problem when some mothers don't even have access to clean drinking water, let alone parks or the sea but none of that should discount another person's experience. We have our karma to work out and can't completely understand what it's like to be a full-time mom trying to raise two young kids in a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins, France until we live it.


There were many things to love about the Côte d'Azur—the sea, as you remember, Zelda, the wildness of Cap d'Antibes, Pablo Picasso in the museums in Antibes and Vallauris, Matisse's Rosary Chapel, Marc Chagall's grave, and James Baldwin's presence in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Éze and old Nice, the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, the breathtaking Massif de l'Estérel, the rocky beaches in Agay, Cocteau's Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem in Fréjus—but the traffic jams, the excess retirees, and not enough open roads and nature began to push us out.

Cap d’Antibes, photo credit: Jody Kennedy

Cap d’Antibes, photo credit: Jody Kennedy

It's not clear how far you took the affair with that French aviator you met in Saint-Raphaël (where you were bored and lonely waiting for Scott to finish writing The Great Gatsby) though it did go far enough for you to ask for a divorce, which Scott refused and you didn't push. Why didn't you insist? Maybe part of you knew that the French aviator couldn't save you like Scott couldn't have saved you but still, you weren't quite ready to consider the possibility that in the end there is nowhere to go but within. The grass is never greener, wherever you go there you are, relationships built on mutual or exclusive drunkenness are generally doomed from the start.


(One of you needs to be courageous and leave.)

 
My husband's job at the shipyard where he'd been working on the Île Sainte-Marguerite ended and I was more than happy to leave Juan-les-Pins. From there, we moved to small hameau near Saint-Tropez where my husband had a new contract installing cabinetry in villas owned by wealthy Russians. I wasn't sure which was worse, a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins or the upper apartment of a tiny house in the middle of vineyards and olive trees near the foothills of the Massif des Maures, a small mountain range that runs from Hyères to Fréjus.


“I hate a room without an open suitcase in it—it seems so permanent,” you said. After you and Scott married you roughly lived in: Westport, Connecticut; New York City; Paris; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Great Neck, Long Island; Paris again; Saint-Raphaël; Rome; painting classes on the island of Capri; Paris again; Juan-les-Pins; Paris; Wilmington, Delaware; Montgomery, Alabama; Baltimore, Maryland; Paris; the Clinic Malmaison (near Paris) after your first mental breakdown; Valmont Clinic in Glion, Switzerland; Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in the district of Nyon, Switzerland; Montgomery (again); Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore; Sheppard-Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland; Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina; and after Scott's death in 1940, you went between Montgomery and Highland Hospital where you ended up dying in that fire on March 10, 1948. You were buried next to Scott in Rockville Union Cemetery, Rockville, Maryland before both of you were moved across the street to St. Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery. (Did you ever miss not having a more traditional lifestyle? A white picket fence and a garden? A place for Scottie to call home?)


Though there were no serious conflicts in my marriage, I still struggled with a long-standing modus operandi of being attracted to and wanting to sleep with certain men who were either good-looking and/or made me laugh. My French aviator du jour turned out to be a dreadlocked French-Algerian boy who was working on a property down the road. In my imperfect French, I spoke with him about Bob Marley, Haile Selassie, and the Rastafarian community in Shashemene, the Ethiopian town where my son was born. I took extra strolls with the kids during the day and when my husband got home from work, I made excuses to leave early on my walks just to get a glimpse of him.The only thing that ever came of the affair though was me feeling incredibly desperate and foolish for having had such a serious crush on someone who was not only married (with kids, too), but almost half my age. It reminded me of those men who prefer young girls to women of their own generation and how I'd always resented that, especially being on the receiving end when I was younger unless the attention was from a man I admired. But now, since about post-thirty-five, I've clearly noticed (with mixed feelings) being passed over by that objectified gaze. Didn't you, Zelda, as Nicole Diver, in Tender Is the Night, fight with Scott i.e. Dick Diver about the same thing? Are we loved for our fresh bodies or for our beautiful minds? Can we be equals with men or will that always and forever threaten the status quo? And conversely, are we loving men for their bodies or are we loving them for their minds?Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art,” (alas) said King Lear. 

Zelda in Ballet Outfit: Photograph by CSU Archives / Everett

Zelda in Ballet Outfit: Photograph by CSU Archives / Everett


Saint-Tropez wasn't our style, though there was enough to like about the region—less traffic and more nature and easier for the kids and me (i.e. more space to play outside), the silence, especially at night and the stars and the mimosa trees blooming in spring, the long walks alone in the foothills of the Massif des Maures with a neighborhood dog, a lonely Jack Russell terrier I named Oscar who had taken a liking to me (the feeling was mutual), the castle ruins in the village of Grimaud, the Musée de l'Annonciade and an English-speaking recovery meeting in Saint-Tropez—it became clear though when we visited the local crèche to sign our daughter up for preschool that “St-Trop” and environs wasn't going to be our destiny. I dreamed of living in a walkable city and, like my husband, for more varied artistic and cultural offerings.


“Goofo, I'm drunk,” you said to Scott when Scottie was born. “Isn't she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it's beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.”


Most of the girls in the Good Girls Bad Girl's Club ended up having mental breakdowns (is that the price some of us pay for trying to stay fools?). Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath died by their own hands, my maternal grandmother lived to an unhappy fifty-six, and my paternal grandmother, said to be a handful, who I never knew and whose story I'll never fully know, disappeared completely from my father's life when he was thirteen. Though I never received an official mental illness diagnosis, my moods swung from out of control to severely depressed. A culmination of small and not so small breakdowns ended with me quitting drinking at twenty-three and then another breakdown with me suicidal at eight years sober which resulted in the going off of all medication and being baptized in the Catholic Church.


“…If the person doesn't listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you're going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. And the world's full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.”


On a recent vacation to Aix-les-Bains, and thinking of you, I'd planned to visit Annecy where you and Scott and Scottie spent two weeks in July 1931. Scott picked you up from Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in Switzerland and the trip would turn out to be one of happiest for both of you—so much so that you never wanted to go back Annecy and risk ruining those memories. I'd never officially been to Annecy except passing through some years back after visiting friends in Thonon-les-Bains. We ended up not going to Annecy this time either because I was afraid that in the crush of tourists and the oppressive August heat, I wouldn't be able to find you. 


There are eleven online reviews for Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, now Prangins Hospital in Switzerland. With an overall rating of 2.5 stars, half the stars are just stars and the others, with commentary, mention that some of the nurses are impatient and rude unless nothing is expected or demanded of them, the doctors are often late, and it can be difficult to get a good cup of tea. Nevertheless, the grounds are spacious and lovely with ping-pong tables, checkerboards, and beautiful views of Lake Geneva.

Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, Switzerland:  Photograph courtesy of delcampe.net

Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, Switzerland: Photograph courtesy of delcampe.net

You had already written and published dozens of short stories and articles when you gave birth to your first novel Save Me the Waltz while a patient at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore. Scott was furious and accused you of stealing material he'd planned for Tender Is the Night. For whatever reason, you turned the manuscript over to him to be reworked and it was published in 1932 to lukewarm reviews. The book was written well enough but I came away wanting more, some truth, something deeper or more revolutionary. Why do we write? To exorcize demons? To win a knife fight? To be seen? To prove a point? You left an unfinished manuscript titled Caesar's Things. Does it hold the key to your life, I wonder? Does it unmask what was masked? Does it render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's[1]?

*

We kissed indiscriminately, collected ostrich feather pompoms, and wore retro dresses. Our beds were our kingdoms, our insomnia, and migraines, our asylums. We hid from school, from social engagements, from proper employment, from our children, our husbands, ourselves. We clung to memories of being mothered by our mothers’ (our mothers, our mothers: sweet, controlling thrift sale lovers) chicken noodle soup and cool thermometers. We pulled the starched Martha Stewarts, the pressed vintage percales up around our ears. We offered our eyes to the ferryman who ferried us slowly back through muted childhood, watery fetalhood, pre-Eden, pre-Big Bang before we tried to manipulate and stretch and breathe life into our stuffed animals and our dolls.

*


What do you do with a girl who drinks too much? Who gets furious and calls you a spoilsport and a killjoy when you don't want to go out to the bar or have sex half the night? What do you do with a girl who's jealous of other women (even your mother), of your friends, and of your artistic creations? Who slaps and taunts you, throws knives, pots and pans, and remote controls? 


(You can take the girl out of the alcohol but you can't take the alcoholic out of the girl.) 


You had a religious conversion at the end of your life, wore black and preached Bible verses on the streets of Montgomery. I had my own Joan of Arc period some years after being baptized at the Cathedral of Saint Paul and though I wasn't aware of it at the time, it was the same church Scott had been baptized in as a baby.[2] And my apartment (#8) at 1439 Grand Avenue was just a mile or so due west from Scott's third-floor room at his parents’ house on Summit Avenue where he furiously rewrote This Side of Paradise with you in mind. And when the story was accepted for publication, you said yes to marriage and the rest is history.

Save Me the Waltz Original Book Cover:  Photograph courtesy of Raptis Rare Books.

Save Me the Waltz Original Book Cover: Photograph courtesy of Raptis Rare Books.

“Self-portrait” (painted in watercolor during one of your hospital stays, probably in the early 1940s) was an image I just couldn't get out of my mind. There, I imagined a sublimation of self, of you and of all of us, a twisting of something beautiful into something ugly, something warm into something cold, something innocent into something evil. You had a dream of being free once, of breathing underwater, of taking the wheel, of dancing in the Russian ballet, of mothering and loving and gentleness. Is this really how the Jazz Age ends? With us trying to recapture an illusory golden epoch? When girls were girls and boys were boys, and black was black and white was white? And all of the rest of us, witches, mystics, androgynous and ambiguous stayed hidden in the shadows? Tell me, how does your brave new world look now, Mister Death?


“Down here,” you wrote a friend after Scott died, “the little garden blows remotely poetic under the voluptes of late spring skies. I have a cage of doves who sing and woo the elements and die.[3]” You were living with your mother in Montgomery then and had been given the green light to leave Highland Hospital but you chose to return, you hadn't been feeling well, you—

*

There was a great fire come down from East Egg, come down on the backs of Hestia and Chantico and lo also the lady in Ibsen's and Munch's The Lady from the Sea. We cried as we watched East Egg burn, watched Montgomery burn, watched the smoke rise up in the West as from a campfire in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and lo from the ash we saw a dove rise and beheld in amazement Scott coming down on a cloud. Scott, Scott, Scott, Darling, Goofo, beautiful golden-haired boy and you, Miss Zelda (Everybody) falling over yourself to meet him.

*

I started this letter angry at Scott and wondering how you could have given so much and given up so much. You and Scott were so young when you met (twenty and twenty-four) and as I went back through your lives, so knotted and fused, I slowly began to understand that you and Scott were two sides of the same coin, the animus and the anima playing out its old, ancient game. So was it destiny or just common, garden-variety codependency? (Probably a little bit of both.)


Amazon created a series a few years back called Z: The Beginning of Everything based on Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. The final episode ends at you newly pregnant with Scottie and though I don't believe the series did you justice, it is a testament of just how deeply the story of you and Scott continues to resonate with us. In America, we still like to glorify flappers, but it seems to be less about writers and artists now and more about reality TV stars. I'm guessing we'll probably always be more enamored with the glamour but maybe not so much the happily ever after. Thinking of you, Zelda, and hope you are well wherever you are.

 

Love always,

Jody

Edvard Munch, “Lady from the Sea,” 1896: Image from  Wikimedia

Edvard Munch, “Lady from the Sea,” 1896: Image from Wikimedia

[1]    Reference to Romans 13:1

[2]    The Cathedral of Saint Paul was inaugurated at its present location in 1915. Scott was baptized at the previous location on Saint Peter and Sixth Streets in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota.

[3]    Andrew Turnbull. Scott Fitzgerald, le magnifique (Robert LaFont Paris, 1964). 330.


Jody Kennedy's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, DIAGRAMTin House OnlineCutBank's Long Way From, Long Time Since and The WoodshopElectric Literatureand elsewhere. She lives in Provence, France. More at her website: jodyskennedy.wordpress.com.


Visit Jody Kennedy’s previous work at CutBank:

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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


Referenced in the text:

Zelda Fitzgerald. Save Me the Waltz. (Scribner, 1932). <http://fitzgerald.narod.ru/zelda/waltz1.html>

Footage File, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” YouTube Video, 0:23, January 17, 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9vXKKPeBk?rel=0&w=560&h=315

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (Episode 1, Chapter 12). <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell> [14 September 2018]

E.E. Cummings. “[Buffalo Bill 's]” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47244/buffalo-bill-s

Andrew Turnbull. Scott Fitzgerald, le magnifique (Robert LaFont Paris,1964). 330.


Two poems, two poets, two lives, enfolded. George Kalamaras speaks to James Wright in LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE.

On James Wright, from the Poetry Foundation:

“James Wright was frequently referred to as one of America's finest contemporary poets. He was admired by critics and fellow poets alike for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns. In the Minnesota Review, Peter A. Stitt wrote that Wright's work both represents and parallels the development of the best modern American poets: ‘Reading the Collected Poems of James Wright from the point of view of style is like reading a history of the best contemporary American poetry. One discovers a development which could be said to parallel the development generally of our finest recent poets. . . . [This development shows] a movement generally away from rhetoric, regular meter and rhyme, towards plainer speech, looser rhythms and few rhymes.’”


Letter to James Wright (Or My “The Indianapolis Poem” Folded into Your “The Minneapolis Poem”)

by George Kalamaras
 

“I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.”
—James Wright
 

1.    Dear Jim:
I ask how many dead dogs last year
tilted the earth, as their breath eased out
into the frost-filmed leaves.
As if they were bleeding sideways
into the nails of Noah’s Ark, rusting slowly
the ocean salt of the Dead Sea, the inky
green plankton of the Sargasso. The Ohio River
running there, all the way from Evansville, torn
pages of Bibles floating belly-up
in the river, having been ripped to plug a wall.
Hound dogs who couldn’t follow the moon,
couldn’t tree a coon, lost
in ground fog. The hame bells of dead horses
still drawing Conestogas across Kentucky, somehow
sighing in the moon’s smoke.
And I wish every dead animal
good ground and sound luck.


2.    Dear Crippling Wind in Your Hammock-Strung Throat:
Indianapolis. Fort Wayne. Brownsburg. Crown Point.
Crawfordsville. Cedar Lake. In our town,
weather was weather
in the crippling wind
through the mangled cornhusks of autumn.
And the barns—torn apart by the brutal
maiming of November—were sinners
that took to their knees
to wait out the primitive sadness of the moon.


3.    Jim:
Indiana, the old Northwest Territory.
Just beyond lay immense forests of dark trees.
Wolf track. Pond scum. Sassafras scent.
The white bark of sycamores like ghosts
of wood buffalo in the switchgrass.
Indianapolis, where bands of Ishmaelites
from the Upland South settled the other side
of the White River. They were said to have wandering blood,
which caused them to gypsy
. And their wagon lanterns,
postured against the dark, Jim, threw a shadow
of a shadow, bobbing, there,
in the snow-cupped waves. The White River,
which a century later lost 4.6 million
fish to Guide Corp’s automotive parts
in Anderson. The White River, which absorbed 10,000 gallons
of HMP-2000 into the wandering water, wandering away
into the Wabash, wandering, open-mouthed, startled
with the sudden weightlessness of death dying
as it died.


4.    Dear One, Who Wrote with an Ocelot in His Mouth:
Someone said Etheridge Knight, before Korea,
before the shrapnel wound and drugs bit his wrist,
had been Lew Wallace in a previous life,
when Lew had already left for New Mexico.
That Ben-Hur sat so long in prayer at the feet of Christ
that he reincarnated as James Whitcomb Riley.
That ocelots and armadillos from Texas
roamed nighttimes north from Galveston, from Corpus Christi,
to become polecats and possums in Indiana.


5.    Dear You-Knew-the-Poor-from-Wheeling-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-River:
The strippers at Poor John’s in Fort Wayne, Jim,
eat a late night meatloaf at Liberty Diner,
north on Old U.S. 30. The weight of the open road.
The weight of so much beauty
dancing here, then there. Of the curves
as they circuit town to town. The voluptuous
drift of a late-night radio voice in the car
with them between towns. Inserted, sideways, 
into their lives. Fort Wayne to Muncie. Muncie to Noblesville,
the outskirts of Indianapolis. The weight
of their breasts making solitary men
in the diner almost communal,
though their bra straps expand with the sag of tedious notes
of a favorite song to which they dance over and again
and have brought, here, to quiet, 
in the 3 a.m. coffee and smoke
of this all-night place where the all-night
plates are placed solemnly before them.                       


6.     Once Again, Jim:
Yesterday, yes, a stray hound wandered right through the front door
of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers
Food Co-op. He could have been from Minneapolis
or Saint Paul, or even Martins Ferry,
Ohio. From within the wind whipping you
here to there. No tags. No home.
The tantalizing scent of the café. Cases of cheese.
As if being lonely was love enough to eat.
His bloodline likely coming all the way
from Arkansas. From Tennessee.
You have to tell some weathers
when to snow and when to sun themselves
in the hurricane heart of the mouth. The street is full
of such advice. The homeless know. I heard one
clerk at the Co-op say, recoiling
as if wind-slapped in the face, No dogs allowed
in the swampy dark of the heart
.  

    
7.    Dear Like-a Life-Folded-Within-a-Life:
I want to live in Indiana as if the land was not sick
of being sick. Sand hickory. Hawthorne. Black walnut. Elm.
I want the moon in my throat.
Slantwise. White pools of moon-leaves
shimmering like coins I might grant the poor,
if the poor, by God, grant me my mouth.
Badger. Bobcat. Possum. Skunk.
All the animal dead that live again
in this body. In yours. In the vast
in-between. These ribs. This salt of sound.
How what we lose loves us most.
How a bawl-mouthed howl at the base of a tree might crawl
the riverous veins of leaves. The way an excited pack of hounds,
leaping and trembling, their long toenails scarring
the bark against which they lunge, clamor
for the elusive coon to come down,
to finally give up, to give its shivering self up,
—as all frightened things eventually must—
to all the quivering below that caused it to tree.
 

(for James Wright)


This is a segment from James Wright's Ohio, a 30 minute film by Tom Koba and Larry Smith featuring two of James Wright's poems with visual story images: "A Flower Passage" and "Beautiful Ohio." Also included are statements from Wright and William Matthews.
 

*

Words becoming "Living by the Red River."
Image from The Paris Review.


From The Paris Review's The Art of Poetry No. 19 in the summer of 1975. James Wright interviewed by Peter A. Stitt

“I’m afraid I have to admit that I cannot escape it, and to that extent I regard it as a kind of curse. I’ve thought that many a time. Why the hell couldn’t I have been a carpenter or a handyman?”

 

 

 

*

George's seven all-time favorite James Wright poems:

From Poemhunter.com:

(Poemhunter hosts a marvelous collection of Wright's work, with links to 40 poems. Also, PoetryExplorer.com provides a wide-ranging list of links to over 90 of Wright's poems!)

From Poets.org:

James Wright reads his work, with commentary. (57 minutes)


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: George Kalamaras says “Hey” to poet Ray Gonzalez

FROM POETRY MAGAZINE:

The Unsung Passion of Ray Gonzalez
by Roy G. Guzmàn

“Through Gonzalez’s poetry I’ve discovered the various syntaxes that run through my own linguistic DNA. Through him I’ve discovered how to deploy my metaphors and when to reveal my silences (“Beware the silence stronger than the voice,” he writes in “Beware the Silence,” included in Human Crying Daisies (2003)). Like his personality—measured, as if ticking like a clock, and with an appetite for tactful wit—Gonzalez’s poem-tellers can be shy but, when allowed to speak, can verbalize truths with the swiftness of a lizard. In “What Lesson?” for instance, the speaker asks, “What were the questions our mothers asked? Who did they make love to before our fathers arrived with newspapers and torn wills and deeds?”  … Gonzalez has the associative skill and patience of James Wright, and that gift of surprise you find in Russell Edson’s best work. He knows when to walk into a poem and when to walk away, leaving everything around haunted.”


Letter to Ray from Livermore

by George Kalamaras


Hey Ray. There are likely only two Surrealists left
who still read Hugo with any depth. Got a guess?
We know Breton and Desnos are dead,
though not in our poems. I was thinking today
how we love the West. The real West where railroads speak.
Everything now is air. Rush here, fast there.
Our molecules jiggle enough as it is
when we microwave our food. That baked potato
I ate last night still striving inside me to survive.
Of course you’ll visit in July and sleep
with your head to the north, aligning yourself
with the pines. You remember growing up
on the border with scorpions, the desert
and its sting. I recall Indiana fire ants
in the pump-house ivy. My boyhood
bites. John says they’re in my wrist.
And I believe him, standing some nights as I do
like the guy in Un Chien Andalou, staring
at my hand. I know. The wrist is not my hand,
but like those railroad tracks, our veins keep wending West.
Each year for me from Fort Wayne to Livermore.
I don’t know, sometimes, how we’ve survived this long
with a moth wing for a mouth. Something is beating me
back, and I’m sure it’s me. Part fly, part sky. You named it
Luna, and started a magazine. You got the night
just right. I’ve gone inside, my eye open to the spiritual
fly. Buzz here. Land there. Let the breath
and with it the jittery monkey-mind release.
It’s surprising we still have wives, the way our parents left
one another with pain. We’re not unique. Someone
is always throwing someone out, even with a word
or curve of earth. Someone is always throwing
a bone to the dog. In your case, cats. Remember
when Punk and Whitey loved to eat cantaloupe,
as far back as Arvada? God, we’ve known each other
a long time, even before them, in Denver,
knowing what makes our secret strain
exact. When Desnos sleep-talked, he threw a thread
of speak that wound from the cosmic now into the lives
of human dread. That’s why they were scared
and barred him from the group. So there are strains
of purpose and strains of pain. Which brings me
to how you and I do. Which brings me back
to those two rails running West
and all the courage of the plains. Of course, Hugo
could be a sap. And he knew it. But he stands naked,
letting the wind. Like blood into a cup,
it pours out his mouth. And the trees
speak. Not only booze, dark bars, and shame,
but the hope of how to survive in Red Lodge,
Missoula, or Butte. Desnos knew this
too, stumbling back from the camp, typhus
so tight in his spine, the Second World War
pouring out through his teeth. As did Breton, by the time
he got to his third wife. I love them most
for their blurring and slurring of word. The how and why
my life. As we love Hugo too, perhaps most
for his shame in how the West was won
and keeps losing itself in the lost. Because living here
is pine-dead hard. The how and why we cry.


(for Ray Gonzalez)

 

(“Letter to Ray from Livermore” appeared previously in The Drunken Boat, Fall 2012/Winter 2013, Vol. 11, Issues I and II.)


Poet Ray Gonzalez, Pima Auditorium - Memorial Union (Room 230) - ASU Tempe campus

George, Barney Beagle, and Ray from 1997 (Ray visiting George in Fort Wayne to hang out for an informal poetry and rock and roll weekend). Photo by Mary Ann Cain.

 

4 Poems at the Superstition [review]:

  • “A Bird Inside the Building” 
  • “Three Snow Storms” 
  • “Photo of Pablo Picasso with His Shirt Off ” 
  • “If by Chance, The Child Prodigy” 

*

Ray Gonzalez in Minneapolis, Con Tinta NaPoMo 2015 y más, coverage by Xánath Caraza of the La Pachanga Award Ceremony in 2015.


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

A letter to Judith Emlyn Johnson. LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE.

Judith Johnson on "Writing and the Sense of Community":

The idea that writing is a solitary act of self-expression does not reflect my experience of writing, or of my own relationship to my community. Self-expression is certainly unavoidable, but not a useful primary goal. The self is the least interesting of the things art embodies, and this embodiment is less an act of expression, of pressing outward, than it is an act of inwardness, of registering, of careful attention. By emptying oneself of ego, of preconceptions, of the already known and experienced, one creates a space through which poetry, experience, life, may make its own way.

. . . All writers need this sense of community, so we do not get arrogant and distant and full of ourselves. The single most important thing any teacher of writing can do is to keep students firmly focused on their initial community as constituted by themselves, and their obligation, therefore, to learn from and nurture each other. The rest is technique, and it can be learned, but the sense of community is a central spiritual necessity.

From "Writing and the Sense of Community"


Letter to Judy from Colorado Springs

by George Kalamaras

This is the city of Nikola Tesla—how all that electricity could have been here and ignored. Buried in shafts. Released. I could spend lifetimes and never understand how a person could kill, claiming God, from lightning strikes on Pikes Peak to radium in the healing waters of Colorado and Manitou Springs. I hate the hotels. The bagels are boring. Part of me would rather giveth my human fur unto the muleskinners and the traps. Let me thank you, my darling, for the birds of prey overhead, for the hawk you sent decades before, keening through my gut. You called it by baby bird names. You called it Whitman and salt. Bachelard and phosphorous. Even Marie Ponsot and a cure for consumption. I never breathed so well as I do now. I never knew you in Belgium. Nor the uranium implanted in your once-twenty-eight-year-old throat. I never knew how in almost dying you could so clearly reach twenty years ahead into my grief. When they eat dirt, I understand earthworms are not merely feeding but are also digging a burrow. I could have spent decades longer as a hermit, before meeting you, content to carry a hut in my throat-latch thatch, and Whitman would have never discovered the line’s great ache, the dislocation of Long Island gnats in Conestogas in the Missouri Breaks. Was it you or Bachelard who slept all those years in the same bed with his idiot brother? How can I sleep with myself and allow my invisible woman body to make me more of a man? What can I finally bring you? Gift you? How shall I tell? When do we love without love? The death of the mother-mouth is all it takes for a rain curtain to fall, fiercely from the West. It is necessary, it is written, to be necessary. Given the expression of the thin-gummed man, there is so much we continue to hide. You once wrote of a great angry owl in search of its kill. You visited this place years before, though it was Aspen, writing poems with Paul Blackburn and becoming more of the world. There are cities of mathematics and cities of sleep. A poetics of generosity. What happens to the soul when the breath breaks apart into phosphorus and zinc? Mine tailings of raw religion have claimed this place from generations of Cheyenne. Have stripped it in a frightenly ancient way—fish by fish, fossil by fossil—from there to here. The imprint of the shy octopus in the rock can still bite—mixing poison in its saliva—and pull one’s diving mask off, dragging something almost human to the bottom of even these mountains. Oceans of prairie grass not that far east are not a cliché when one speaks of even one bone of the buffalo dead. Yes, I say buffalo, not bison. It is sometimes good to not be too precise. For the gush of gold, Judy. For the pour of ore that—with the Silver Bill Repeal—ached this place. For the sake of something more. We prayeth this city of Tesla, complete, return us unto the pores of the tongue—divine and electric, replete.

(for Judith Johnson)


(“Letter to Judy from Colorado Springs" previously appeared in Calibanonline, Issue 13, 2013)


About Judith Johnson:

Left to right: Heather Grady (friend), George Kalamaras, Judith Johnson, and Mary Ann Cain (George's wife), following a reading that Judy and Mary Ann gave at the Three Rivers Food Co-op, Fort Wayne, Indiana, November, 2004.

Judith E. Johnson (formerly, Johnson Sherwin), poet, fiction-writer, performance artist, and editor, is the author of eight poetry books, including Cities of Mathematics and Desire and The Ice Lizard (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005 and 1992). Her widely exhibited inter-media installation, "Friedrich Liebermann, American Artist," is forthcoming as a digital novel. Former President both of the Board of Associated Writing Programs, and of the Poetry Society of America, she is editor of 13th Moon Press, which publishes 13th Moon: A Feminist Literary Magazine, The Little Magazine, and starting in 2008, poetry, fiction and children’s books. Between 1955 and 1985, she published under her married name, Judith Johnson Sherwin. Now retired, she is Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. (Bio from Poets & Writers)

You can find examples of Judy's work at the Poetry Foundation, and read her essay, "A Poetics of Generosity" on her website.


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: "Letter to Bly Thirty-Nine Years After Your Note to Me"

"Bly’s poetry is often categorized as part of the deep image school of writing, in which the poet employs a system of private imagery; however, Bly’s wish is not to create a personal mythology, but rather to describe modern American life through powerful metaphors and intense imagery. [...] Hugh Kenner, writing in the New York Times Book Review, remarked that 'Bly is attempting to write down what it’s like to be alive, a state in which, he implies, not all readers find themselves all the time.'"
The Poetry Foundation

Robert Bly at the Poetry Out Loud Minnesota Finals at the FItzgerald Theater. 2009. Photo by Nic McPhee.


Letter to Bly Thirty-Nine Years After Your Note to Me

by George Kalamaras


So my hound dog has pulled it off the shelf
this evening. She has great taste. Sometimes
it’s a Jimi Hendrix cd, or maybe something

from George Harrison. Tonight it’s your book,
Robert, This Tree Will Be Here
for a Thousand Years
. Apparently,

it is, to her sense of hound-dog time—stable
as a floating rib. Something to inhale and paw
and wag over and—if given the chance—

mouth and tear apart, leaves of a book
and the autumn fires with which you signed it
thirty-nine years ago. And I weave my way

back, gently taking it from her, opening
to page forty-five, “Pulling a Row Boat Up
Among Lake Reeds,” a page which holds

your footprint. How did it get there?
What were the karmic steps it took
to draw me to that book one autumn

and to your reading that evening? I remember
the scent of fall. 1979. The book just out.
A packed auditorium

in Bloomington, Indiana. You had
forgotten it. Asked if someone
in the audience could lend you a copy.

And I was there. Shy, young poet
who needed a nudge from—unknown
to him—his soon-to-be-wife

to lend you his book from which you
read and danced and sang, playing
your bouzouki, hair wild as a hawk’s

nest in a storm as if you were
an ancient bard
dropped from an Aegean island

at some faraway port where windy languages
meet. Later, you signed the book for me
in your customary green ink

so that I might always remember,
I suppose, the fertility of your words
in your poems and in what you wrote

to me: With thanks for the loan
of this book, during the reading,
and for the loan of your face

with so much liveliness and aliveness.
The soil you planted in me, through me,
all these thousands of days

as I walk here to there, Robert,
among hound dogs and weeds
and crunched catalpa leaves

aching underfoot.
Like pulling a rowboat up
among lake reeds 

where I see
love-blossoms
and grief-flowers

or where I imagine
love blossoms
and grief flowers.

Nouns only, or nouns
and verbs? The way
our words do two things at once

like stepping into a book and
into the world. You left your footprint
indelibly in this book,

as you set it on the floor
between poems, telling stories, dancing
and reciting, ecstatic as Kabir and Rumi

before you, marking page forty-five
with the steps you had taken to arrive
all those years into my life in Indiana

that certain evening, though
it just as easily could have been
page thirty-eight, stamped

with your weight
into my favorite poem
the book still opens to

naturally, as if it is always
about to speak
what I most need. So tonight,

my dog had hound sense—
some moon-wood path in her
snout—pulling it off

the shelf to remind me
how my voice is in hers,
yours in mine. And the moon’s

in all of ours. All three at once.
For what we think
must surely be a thousand years.


 

In this installment, George reads and comments on the work of poet Robert Bly (1926-- ).


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A Letter to Gerrit Lansing (1928-2018), by George Kalamaras

"The writing/riting of poetry is for Lansing a testing of the human imagination against the creative and destructive powers of nature and the universe. It is the most serious of games and should only be played by those who would risk everything, but for those, there are worlds to gain."

"The Metaphysics of Gerrit Lansing"
by Robert Baker


Letter to Gerrit from Aurora

by George Kalamaras

On the plains east of Denver, near Aurora, sod huts lift a pioneer past. Say how the earth rises up to eat us. Kali Ma—you told me, the night we met, Gerrit—devours her young, transforming careful cattle-step into cosmic crust. It hurts to love this much. This deep. A weed is not the enemy. A dirty word. I repudiate the icicle of summer. I am completely Arctic, Hudson in my fur, in my response to the readings for the day—from Cixous, to Bakunin, to Francis Ponge, and The Secret Life of Plants. The decisiveness of a doorknob. The switchblade’s flung-sung. Music of the rib, especially when the breaths cease. The monstrous mustache of vulnerable underarm hair. The Heavenly Tree, you wrote, Grows Downward. The tree of yoga, body inverted, has hair as roots. Pushes particles of groin-fire up, back into the coal-shiver of the brain. Was it Sumeria or here in Aurora where we first met? How many lives ago? Friendship like ours doesn’t just speak. Which of us wrote a love note to the moon, begging it to enter, slantwise, our throat? The Lansings of Albany—our friend, Don Byrd, told me—spoke beauty. The lancings of Medieval England bloodlet disease, perforating the pluckings of a lute. When Wang Wei played his lute, pine trees bowed before him to drink of the willow? No. Wang Wei painted his toenails with turmeric, plants rising to coat his throat in strange hermit sage. How many men kneeled? How many women in sod huts died during childbirth? How many souls rushed to incarnate—at that place, at that time, on the Colorado plains—only to leave a three-day-old infant and return to the great edge of an echo?

My neighbor died this morning, passing one breath to the next. Eighteen years we breathed through one another, across the driveway, through the cedar siding, as we slept not thirty feet apart. It was sad as the sudden dust of childbirth up-thrust from the plains. Suddenly, I am middle-aged. More than sixty. I almost brought home the stray bluetick coonhound yesterday, even though my wife refused again and again. The blue and gray mottled ticking of my life is all mixed up, showing more and more through. Something clocked in Colorado’s sun-dead pines.

Last summer, the power stopped. Mary Ann and I fled a weekend to air-conditioned relief. Each night, outside the hotel so my beagle could pee, I saw a gorgeous short-skirted woman enter and leave with various men. She complimented my dog. Each morning, we small-talked—my hound sniffing weeds—over her first cigarette of the day. Baggy t-shirt, bare feet, no makeup mornings. The beautiful sore of her somewhat hoarse voice. Still, that gorgeous ass. Belle Watling. Bree Daniels. Baby Doe Tabor. I remembered all the wrong. The unsung drive keeping men alive. Killing them, one lay at a time.

There is a whalebone corset complaining my throat. The Garland of Letters, you told me, was the book I need. You told me your heart beats weak. I hear it across the continent loud as mouths, clacking Conestogas rutting the ruts. Here in Aurora with its sad-dried sod. Huts. Aching the ache. Deepening the Missouri Breaks.

(for Gerrit Lansing)

("Letter to Gerrit from Aurora" appeared originally in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Issue 43, 2015)


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Gerrit Lansing

by Ruth Lepson

The 11th way of looking:
"11. Emerson was one influence on Gerrit, but it’s impossible to list all the influences, so wide-ranging are his knowledge and the depth of his understanding. He knows the history and practice of Tarot, Eastern and especially Western magic, gnosticism and hermeticism, Daoism, Vedanta and Zen, and wicca, sometimes speaking at esoteric gatherings in Salem on subjects unknown to and hidden from most of us poets. Certainly he’s a poet of the imagination and of non-dualism and eroticism. Add to that deep reading in depth psychology, phenomenology (especially of the Merleau-Ponty type), natha–a tantric form of yoga, linguistics and social theory, ecstasy and enstasy, the imaginism of Douglas Fawcett, Carl Ruck and his study of ecstatic ritual, Wallace Stevens, Coleridge, and Yeats, whom he loved but whom, he realized, it would be deadly to imitate."

* * *

George recommends:

"How We Sizzled in the Pasture" at the Poetry Foundation.

"The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward" on the Nomadics blog.

And also, that you enjoy:

Gerrit Lansing on Close Listening

Program One:
Gerrit Lansing reads selections from his collected poems, The Heavenly Tree / Northern Earth (North Atlantic, 2009) (26:40)

Program Two:
Gerrit Lansing talks with Charles Bernstein, and guest Susan Howe, at Lansing’s house in Gloucester, Mass.  (55:43)

Heavenly Tree Northern Earth Gerrit Lansing cover.jpg

* * *

Gerrit Lansing, the author most recently of Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (2009), presents a “conspectus” of poems from his early years through to recent work. Introduced by Ruth Lepson, the recording session is followed by a brief oral history conversation focused on an array of subjects, including Gerrit’s friendships with John Latouche, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Stephen Jonas, and John Wieners (among many others), as well as his role as the editor of the 1960s magazine, SET.


Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A Letter to Bill Tremblay

"Poetry, art in general, had to speak honestly in favor of life. Or shut up."

What I read, among the younger post-World War II generation, was an immense urgency. An emergency. Apocalyptic. The atomic bomb, the Death Camps, the fact that the Germans and the scientific geniuses of the United States had created this condition where the only two choices were transcendence or annihilation, this sense that humanity’s leaders had already abandoned individual moral choice, had abdicated to a systematic machinery, what I call the global Operating System—isn’t that kind of what Ginsberg meant by “Moloch”?—for making decisions, because what person with a shred of conscience could live with the incalculable horrors attendant on thermonuclear war? So, there was already this end of days feeling. Poetry, art in general, had to speak honestly in favor of life. Or shut up.

From "An Interview with Bill Tremblay" by William Ryan


Letter to Tremblay from Tie Siding

by George Kalamaras
 

I’m going to call you by your last name in the title,
Bill, because you’re football-coach tough. Something
that sometimes hurt, as if what you taught me
wasn’t just poems but how to loosen the nails
on the siding of the house. My house. The one
with shame. 1980 seems a long life away. July.
U-haul packed with stuff I didn’t much need.
I thought I was coming a long way to Fort Collins.
In some ways not. You were younger then
than I am now—by a decade and a half—
and you seemed so old. You were born old,
is what the father in It’s a Wonderful Life
told his son. And you were too. Which is likely why
you could see it in me. The boards. The doors.
The scaffolding that one day needed to be pried. Loose
in Tie Siding, I’m just eight miles across the border
into Wyoming. Cowboys still calm here
the plains. The only building in town,
a combination post office and flea
market, could be a set for a lonesome
Western script. Somebody inside
is surely tough, tearing to songs of lost
love, itching through a drunken grin
for a fist. I was never tough in that way,
but there was strength. Somehow
divorce at age three can skin a boy alive
and leave the carcass to rot. Only the farm kids
wore coveralls. There’s teenage cologne.
Years of jokes.  Booze, which brings its own dying
scent. Something you knew, cleaning the vomit off Crumley
that night in the parking lot of the Charco-Broiler
off Mulberry in the Fort. Your whiskey vomit too,
there as reflux for the fathers
you nor I had. I’ve always loved
Tie Siding because it’s simple. How much
can possibly fuck-up in one sad tree lot
by one sagging ceiling off a lone Wyoming road?
How much is obscured? Seen? Cut
log upon cut log. Like lines
of a poem that can make or break.
Lines that might leave us looking pretty
without delving down into the urgency of now.
My house was rough. Untreated cedar planks
from Cedar Lake. Till Indiana teen years
brought splinters and the wet. Yours
was football stadium noise, not unlike
“the Big House” in Ann Arbor, though you came
from further east. And you tried to silence
it—even the cheers—drunk, in those days, with football
and the angels of Blake. Pioneering a town
like Fort Collins back then, wearing a hat
with the Star of Mao, made you tough up
at the bars among all the Stetsons. The body gets stiff,
holds the past. Shoulders ache. Words get stuck.
If we’re not careful the poems slow, leeching off
into others like cut blood. Fathers abandon sons.
Sons hide it in siding. All the untreated
years that absorb stain. I don’t much like
extended metaphors unless, of course, they elongate our lives.
Which is what our poems must do, even if the lengthening
is not time but depth. Remember our friend
Gene Hoffman? He said, Time is wider than it is long.
Which means only depth in this country
we claim big-sky wide. You meant that too, pushing
finally the bottle away, prodding
me into saying what needed to be
dead, even where it hurt. Now,
the tie hacks are gone since the railroad
tie industry quit many years
back. Too many trees were floated down
the Poudre from the North Fork
into a logjam in LaPorte. Things got stuck.
They needed to pry. Even dynamite
could only free so much. Okay, if we want
what poetry can grieve, metaphors too must die
to the hurt we need to speak inside.
You taught me that, although in saying so
just now my phrase goes flat.
Let me say thanks and leave it at love. 
 

    (for Bill Tremblay)

 

("Letter to Tremblay from Tie Siding" appeared originally in Court Green, Issue 12, 2015: 73-75. You can download that issue here.)


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

Bill Tremblay at the Jacob Edwards Memorial Library Source JE lib tremblayjacob.jpg

For  more info about Bill, his life, and career, visit A City of Words, from the Worcester Writers Project, and the amazing interview on the University of Louisiana at Monroe's turnrow site.

George recommends the following poems as an introduction to Bill's work:

 

Wellesley College welcomed award-winning poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Bill Tremblay to the Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities Distinguished Writers Series on September 24, 2013.

Watch the video at left, or click here.

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: Letter to García Lorca (from the Tenderly Brittle Language of Sassafras Hollows)

Image from Pinterest, portrait by Rinaldo Hopf

“Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.” 
From "Theory and Play of the Duende" by Federico García Lorca, as translated by A. S. Kline 

* * *

Like many biographies of Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), the Poetry Foundation's ends abruptly and tragically, with a telling line or two drawing the poet's life to its final moment: 

"In August 1936, at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca was arrested at his country home in Granada by Francisco Franco’s soldiers. He was executed by a firing squad a few days later." 

Jon Lee Anderson visits sites from the poet's life and death in his The New Yorker piece, "Lorca's Bones."

"The old execution ground at the cemetery was deserted when I visited late one recent afternoon, but a bouquet of red roses lay drying against the wall, beneath a cluster of bullet gouges. The impacts were roughly at the level of a standing man’s groin. I said as much to my companion, Juan Antonio Díaz, a professor of English and German philology at the University of Granada. He remarked, 'Not if you were kneeling. They would hit you at head height.'"

George Kalamaras carries us in this week's literary letter to a place where García Lorca's duende still lives across cultures and time, from García Lorca's own Generation of '27, to the fields and hollers of contemporary Indiana—where the duende “burns the blood like powdered glass,” and where, as García Lorca says, quoting an old maestro de la guitarra: “The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, through the soles of the feet.” 


Letter to García Lorca (from the Tenderly Brittle Language of Sassafras Hollows)

by George Kalamaras

A man is the size of his words. A hound dog,
     the width of a storm cloud embedded in a tornado.

Perhaps in searching for good health, dear
      Lorca, we squeeze the rain, mixing our words

with a stethoscope of sun. Imagine that.
     Sun dangling from the doctor’s neck.

When he places one end in his ear, he can hear
     rain raining itself apart inside each of the broken parts

of the world. I’ve come a long way from grasping the death-moon
     in Miguel Hernández’s throat. The moon I once read

in your poems, in his, nightly, in tea leaves
     before sleep and whispered into

and through, So much of me, too, is sore. Now it’s raccoon time.
     Bandit time. Time of the quicksand chest. Where I scuffle down

to the Great Dismal Swamp and step into the still stream
     to wash away all that threatens the food I’ve found in forest

trash. This ash heap and that could consult the oracle
     of trees. A zodiac of bone tossed from your Andalusian cosmos

and hidden—reluctant—in this body I lug here to there.
     From the baying of a bawl-mouthed hound

to everywhere at once. Yes, I am the infinite
     no searching for myself, in myself, in the letters inside

your name. No, I am not the yes about to mourn
     the moon. When Vicente Aleixandre’s animal

body howls at me from his primordial pain, I know—blessèd
     miracle—I can finally hear. When the pack of hounds—Redbone,

Bluetick, Treeing Walker Coonhound—sings to me the tenderly
     brittle language of sassafras hollows all the way

from southern Indiana hills, I know the world
     is good. With itself again. And will be. Even unto

the close of the throat. I am a man the size of my left good shoe,
     the size of wood-chipped words in the worm fence—my shoe,

the exact and holy way I let the hounds heavy in the stopgaps
     of a body delighted with the happy-sad of its step. Sure,

Luis Cernuda is lonely, still weeping in Mexico. And Rafael Alberti
     is forever marking the lost groves of Argentina with urine

and spit. These are my roots—your friends—sure as hound blood
     coursing the wood pile outside an Indiana cabin. The blood

of sunset in cornhusks, torn. Blood of hickory and sorrow.
     There is always some urgent General Franco

edict ordering us to give in to Andalusian cobble streets and moonlight
     peppering stones with shadows that separate out the dual citizenship

of a word. And the toll sleep exerts when even Lorca graves
     our words—that is, when you do, dear Federico—one trench lip

at a time, as if backwards we mend each rib electric as Whitman
     might his beautifully good mouth. I am only partially hound dog,

as I am partial in the way my mouth. As I am only part backwoods
     sorrow, part worldly news. How what we were mixes

with who we are. As if a landscape of death,
     where you saw that tiny feather on someone’s tongue,

and we lived a hundred years inside a knife. As if a graveyard,
     caught mid-sorrow, cannot complete the sentence

handed down to it from the core of the floating rib,
     suspended but not broken. As I flutter myself

unto the world. As I breathe in and out Indiana
     woodsmoke and remnants of the Spanish Republic

war-dusting my words, not here or there—
     or in your “Landscape with Two Graves

and an Assyrian Hound”—but somewhere in between.


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Doorways to García Lorca's work:

George recommends "Landscape with Two Graves and an Assyrian Hound." The poem is included in Robert Bly's book Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, following an also-recommended Bly essay, "Looking for Dragon Smoke." Or, you can view the poem as a screencap image here.

garcia-lorca.jpg
From the Salvador Dali Lounge.

From the Salvador Dali Lounge.

George also recommends:

"Little Infinite Poem." This one is available at Melange, a site "supporting global, social & ecological justice, cultural expression and the technological revolution."  The author of Melange writes that "Little Infinite Poem" carries "a signature typical for most of [García Lorca's] work: ‘Duende’. ... a force that is irrational and intuitive; spiritually connected to the earth and pantheistic; and – quintessentially Spanish – aware of death." Read the poem here, and more about the nature of duende below.

Rundown Church (Ballad of the World War)
From the Following Pulitzer site of James Rosenzweig.  

"City That Does Not Sleep" at Poets.org.

"Landscape of a Pissing Multitude" at Famous Poets and Poems.com

Lastly, follow the quote from this week's intro into the full text of García Lorca's essay, "Theory and Play of the Duende," as translated by A. S. Kline. 

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A Letter to Dan Gerber from George Kalamaras

Snow on the Backs of Animals. Letter to Dan from Centennial

sulfuric-acid-2433303_960_720 black and white 2.png

by George Kalamaras

Because there is snow on the animal’s back, Dan.  Snow on the backs of our tongues. Because our dogs are the backs of tongues.  Our tongues.  And the way we walk and pant and sleep.  Whether a retriever at your side or a hound dog at mine, the Chinese poets of the T’ang held cats in their lap.  Snow in the Chungnan Mountains is rain in the Sierra Nevadas.  When it rains, it rains bats and frogs.  The furry, reptilian parts of the heart.  Here, take this tongue, I’d say, and you’d sense it all the way in California.

I’m in Centennial, an hour from Laramie, overlooking the Medicine Bows.  We words, we timber, we wood.  We shutter and mutter and splint.  Wood-splints, I say, in the thick musky dusk.  Remove the pituitary gland of a freshly fallen elk, and you can scent the many decades west.  The road from Laramie to Centennial winds wide.  And all the views of everything below is all we have lost.  The heights.  The dreads.  Well-buckets raised from the cracked rib of an owl, when the night is long and starlit and minced.

I’m thinking of that fawn you wrote about, Dan, and the way the coyotes yoated midnight down the draw.  I walked down near the Elkhorn last night, where bears den in the mist, and the wild dog howls sounded my heart.

Let’s say the Japanese tea ceremony included a mixture of monk hair, possum bone, and Kyoto mist.  I’m serving you a cup of yourself, just in writing these words.  There are at least two ways to pronounce Sumac, one of which sounds like the leather around our feet.  What has died has died?  What has died, Dan, to clothe and keep us warm?  Unto what do we giveth our tongue when we say the right name through just the right slime?  Snow.  Snow on the backs of mammals.  Their great lumbering is a Bactrian load all the way from the Gobi.  There are jewels in my hand, jewels in my mouth.  Spices and fires and teas.  And east as west.  Direction, a state of mind.  If you misspell mouth, part of the word burns off into moths against the lamp.  The way we walk and singe and sleep.  Two retrievers—one on your left, one on your right.  The hound dog in my heart howling all the way from Wyoming about the wrong way west.  That fawn, Dan, and the way parts of us break off.   Pray and die and flee.  Here in Centennial, which—with rain at these heights—could be the Chungnan Mountains and the Chinese part of my heart.  There, on the backs of our tongues, where we tender the names of our dogs, most loved, somehow holding what rain freezes into.  Snow from the backs of all we might possibly be.

(for Dan Gerber)

 

(“Snow on the Backs of Animals” appeared originally in Calibanonline, Issue 24, July 2016, pages 58-59.)


George Kalamaras and Dan Gerber. Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras and Dan Gerber. Photo by Jim Whitcraft

About George Kalamaras:

George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

About Dan Gerber:

Two of Gerber's poems George recommends are "Often I Imagine the Earth" at The Poetry Foundation, and his gorgeous elegy for Jim Harrison (1937-2016), "To Jim from the River," featured on Poetry Daily. His most recent book of poetry, Particles: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2017 by Copper Canyon Press.

Visit The Los Angeles Review of Books for a deep-diving visit with Dan in "Grasped by What We Cannot Grasp: The Elemental Poems of Dan Gerber" by Dean Kuipers.

"Besides being the author of 10 volumes of poetry — including the new Particles: New and Selected Poems which came out in September 2017 — three novels, a book of short stories, and two books of nonfiction, Gerber was also an English teacher and a top race-car driver in the 1960s."

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: George Kalamaras writes John Haines, poet to poet, off the grid with memories and hound dogs.


Alaska pexels-photo-207049 850wide.jpg

Letter to John Haines I Neglected to Send,
So Am Finally Sending Now, Twenty Years Late

by George Kalamaras
 

That’s no working dog, George,
you chuckle, my beagle-hound
lounging on my lap. You telling me

about your dog team and hauling wood
through snow several months deep,
stopping to skin a moose

before another storm. The afternoon light
of Helena is particularly amber. You slug
a bit of whiskey, a bottle of Jim Beam

on an old cottonwood stump
between us, and ask about Indiana and hounds
and my wife and me not having ever had

children. It is 1998. Our summer in a cabin
in Montana. No phone, no email, nothing
except General Delivery in Big Timber.

I remember the winter of ’47, you tell me.
In the long dark. Alone. Reading Tu Fu snowy
nights by kerosene lamp. Wandering

the great northern territories
with him. In exile
. I remember Indiana,
John. My own lantern nights. The moon

milking the sycamores. Lamplight
of 1961 still flickering inside, making me
want the quiet of hickories, maples,

and elms. Those woods I keep
walking further into, in the dark
of midnight light. Took us till the 90s

to meet. And I tell you how your books made me
snow inside. Ran lynx tracks
and hare traps near streams that converged

in my heart. The throaty growl
of your and Joy’s German Shepherd
scares all twenty-six pounds of my hound

into sniffing every aching board
of your floor. I’d put my nose down,
too, if I sensed being saved

by what’s below. So we separate the dogs
and bring my hound outside
to her royal seat, again, on my lap. You repeat,

That’s no working dog. Tender
for a forest tough, for a woodsman
who salvaged wood for his cabin

from an old bridge over Gasoline Creek,
laying trapline from Norfolk, Virginia,
to Vallejo, California, into desire

for the frozen north, for western light leaking through
cottonwoods here in Helena. All afternoon we talk
and hold Indiana and Alaska together like fraternal twins

in the liminal space of Montana. I think of Tu Fu,
how that first winter you must have worried
your hair white as his, worried with him

that the kerosene might not hold
till the thaw. That the fellowship you sought
in exile might leave you both

lonely as lemmings limping toward
the Bering Sea. So, we embrace
goodbye. Not in Fairbanks

or Fort Wayne, but somewhere
in-between. Now, I see
there’s a letter from you, John,

unanswered, that I’ve kept as a totem
twenty years on my desk. Makes me
remember the things you were

comfortable enough to ask. As you sloshed
the amber back-burn from a bottle
you brought all the way

from Mile Post 68. And the moon rose
that evening in Indiana and Alaska, Montana
and somehow as far west as Hunan Province

all at once. The solitude
of Tu Fu ruinous and round
in the great white waves

of both of our veins, a moon washing
the sycamores full and warming
our throats. I won’t say I’m sad;

I refuse regret. Your unanswered letter
waits for me to be and not be
who I am, who we could both become

when our words, traveling the Tanana River
or the Wabash, might flow into a common stream
below a cutbank, braid through

one another, and—again—finally meet.


About George Kalamaras:

Photo by Jim Whitcraft

George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.

Allow George to introduce himself (and Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.

Follow George on YouTubeIndiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.

* * *

John Haines (June 29, 1924 – March 2, 2011), served as Poet Laureate of Alaska beginning in 1969, among many other honors. From the Poetry Foundation:

"Harper’s critic Hayden Carruth once described John Haines as 'one of our best nature poets, or for that matter one of the best nature writers of any kind.' Though Haines is sometimes categorized as a regional writer, or an autobiographical poet, Gioia noted that his work eludes simple categorization: 'He is an obstinately visionary poet,' Gioia wrote of Haines, 'who characteristically transforms individual experience into universal human terms.'"

Two of John's poems George is fond of recommending are "If the Owl Calls Again," and "The Flight." These and others are available online at The Poetry Foundation, poets.org, and PoemHunter.com, along with extensive biographies and bibliographies.

* * *

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018, and also in 2014)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own

* * *

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A Letter to Jack Kerouac

Jody_Kennedy_2.jpg

Dear Jack,

I don't know if you remember me but I was that eighteen-nineteen-twenty-year-old blue-eyed brown-haired (sometimes blonde) shy confused lonely drunk girl just trying to figure out who I was while usually wearing something like my grandfather's old hunting outfits a thousand fashion miles away from those beautiful blonde-haired blue-eyed ringleted Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow types or those beautiful brown-eyed black-haired Mexican girls you liked to flirt with on buses going West (or South or North, whatever). But none of that really matters because honestly I never loved you (like I never loved Hemingway) for your physicality I always loved you for your On the Road and your Dharma Bums and your bottle which I kept close in my back pocket (so to speak) during those eighteen-nineteen-twenty-year-old years and never mind the whoring and the hangovers I enjoyed all that, too.

Jody_Kennedy_St. Genevieve .jpg

So you might be wondering why I'm writing after such a long time well it just so happens that on a recent visit to Madison Wisconsin I passed through the old Willy Street neighborhood where I lived for those few years after graduating high school, remember? It all started in that upstairs flat on Jenifer Street where I shaved my head and went from hippie to punk rock pretty much overnight (why-the-fuck-not?) and soon after got my first official on the record boyfriend and moved in with him down the street (where my deeply fossilized self-loathing eventually destroyed the whole thing). Well, being in the old neighborhood got me thinking about your book Satori in Paris and how you traveled to France (Brittany and Paris) in search of your French Lebris de Kérouac family roots (btw I was in Paris a while back and followed your footsteps or cab steps rather to the old church Saint-Louis-en-l'Île on Île Saint-Louis and there I said a prayer for you in front of the statue of St. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris).

Jody_Kennedy_3.jpg

I'm sharing all of this because it turned out that the visit to my old Willy Street neighborhood was a pilgrimage of sorts and you (as previously stated) were highly influential during those aforementioned years. I didn't take a cab in Madison though (like you did in Paris) but was driving a borrowed Subaru Forester. I also didn't do any drinking or whoring (I'm sober now) but I did drive past the old tattoo parlor on Atwood Avenue. Remember that place? Larry's or Steve's or something? Where Larry (or Steve) tried to talk my eighteen-year-old self out of getting a tattoo of an Ouroboros and to choose instead something more normal and girly like a rose or a bluebird and how I scoffed at the suggestion but would never have listened anyway because I already fancied myself a hardened badass or something and was 100% convinced that it was never going to be otherwise. Larry (or Steve) turned out to be right (but that's another story). Anyway, the old tattoo parlor is now an ice cream shop which happened to be shuttered for the season otherwise I would have bought myself a scoop (chocolate probably) minus the slice of apple pie and minus the tattoo. I passed the old art house on Willy Street where I lived for a short time in a flea-infested room with a painted black door and where I had the acute awareness of not having felt clean since moving out of my mother's place. I passed the old Willy Bear (now an Ethiopian restaurant) where I used to spend hours bellied up to the bar with friends. I couldn't find the other Willy Street apartment though where I stayed with my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and my badass black German Shepard puppy with a floppy ear named Blixa (after Blixa Bargeld the guitarist from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) who ended up almost destroying my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend's wall-to-wall carpeted bedroom. I turned onto South Brearly Street passing the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center (still there) where we used to pack in on weekends to see punk rock bands and where I hung back still shy even half-drunk and after the Wil-Mar I looked for my best friend at the time's brick apartment building where she had a studio the size of a shoe box and where we shared her bed (with her tortoiseshell cat) and drank beaucoup cases of crap Point beer. I drove around Orton Park still hemmed in by those big beautiful houses and I remembered the (now at a park in Manhattan) Gay Liberation statues (by American artist George Segal) near the Spaight and South Few Street corner across from the one-time home of Spaightwood Galleries. I ended up skipping B.B. Clarke Beach Park where I would sometimes sprawl out near Lake Monona on summer evenings my head spinning from the booze and the heat and as I was driving away I was thinking what a beautiful neighborhood and I'm not the same person I was back then and Madison Wisconsin is not the same city it was back then and I had an illumination of sorts a kick in the eye you might say a sudden feeling of love and tenderness towards that shy confused lonely drunk girl I once was and also a kind of forgiveness towards Madison Wisconsin and all of that and well there you have it for what it's worth something like my very own satori on Willy Street. So in closing Jack, merci mille fois for helping shore me up during those sometimes sweet and difficult aforementioned years.

All the best,
Jody


Jody_Kennedy_1.jpg

Jody Kennedy's writing and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, Electric Literature’s Okey-Panky, Rattle, CutBank's The Woodshopand elsewhere. She lives in Provence, France.
More at her website: 
https://jodyskennedy.wordpress

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To Peter Matthiessen, from Marc


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


  6 April 2014   Dear Peter,

This is the letter I meant to write. For the last couple of years I meant to write this letter to you. This is it, a bit belated, but I have a habit of not writing the letter or the poem or making the phone call until it’s too late for any of them to be of much use to anyone. So this is the letter, finally, that I had meant to write to you.

I keep thinking about the first time we met. You had just returned to Montana and were on your way out to Jim Harrison’s place to go fish the Yellowstone. On your way out, you cut up to the Grizfork, where I was then living with my cousin Doug Peacock. You came up this way even though you knew Doug wasn’t around, but you said you just wanted to take a look at the mountains. I came out of my cabin and we shook hands and introduced ourselves in the middle of the dirt road laced with ground squirrel tracks and hoof prints. We both agreed on the same drainage of the Absarokas as our favorite: not the south fork of Deep Creek that Chatham so perfectly captured (his painting on the cover of Jim’s Legends of the Fall marking it as the great book that it is) but the drainage immediately south where Pine Creek rises, twisting up toward Black Mountain. There’s something of power up there, some mystery that I think we both love.

We stood silently, side by side, traveling in the imagination, which is to say in spirit, up the dark passage. We stood silently, side by side, as if we were old friends, which felt like a great gift to me. You, the person who had the courage and wisdom and passion and generosity to create a life that made it possible to bring such words into the world: The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Far Tortuga and on and on. How was it possible for one mind to conceive those books, for one heart to feel them, for one pen to contain them? What a gift to stand in silence, next to that mind and heart and pen, to stand in silence contemplating mountains as if we were old friends. I’ll never forget that first meeting and I want to thank you for that.

I just took a break from writing this to call Doug, who now becomes, perhaps, the elder of our loose and far-flung tribe, a distinction he may or may not admit to, but between him and Jim and Terry Tempest Williams, who do we now have left? Anyway, I told Doug that I would go look at the Yellowstone River today and think of you and he told me a memory about a fish you caught in a side channel off Ninth Street Island during your last visit out here.

Your last visit. … I can see your smile, which is mostly in your eyes.

The last time you and I talked, it was over breakfast at the Grizfork. You were heading out for a day of fishing and I was off to another day of building Doug and Andrea’s new house. For awhile, it was just the two of us around that old dining room table, with a photo of Abbey and a painting of a grizzly bear looking down at us from the walls. We got to talking about writing. About method and process. I was struggling with a novel and wondering how to ever finish it (I still haven’t). And then you gave me another great gift. You said, “Something that works for me …” and then you told me how you do it – how you find It, day after day, and follow It all the way to the end of the book. It was the best writing advice I’d ever heard.

But here’s the thing: By the time you were driving away down toward the river, I had completely forgotten what you said. Every word, gone.

So this letter that I’ve been meaning to write, this letter that I’ve been meaning to write for the last couple of years, this belated letter, is to ask you, What was it? What were those few words over coffee and pancakes that I so needed to hear?

I know I’m being greedy. You’ve given us a lifetime of books filled with the words we need to hear. I guess all I can do now is keep reading – my answer is in there somewhere. You were generous and you gave us everything.

So now, what can I say but, “Good journey.” Travel well, my mentor, my elder, and (though I probably haven’t quite earned the honor, I’ll say it anyway) my friend. I will think of you every time I’m blessed with a moment of standing in silence, looking up to Black Mountain and our favorite view along this stretch of the northern Rockies.

And, I’ll close with the word you used in signing my copy of The Snow Leopard, which is both greeting and farewell, and is meant in the literal sense of “I bow to the divine in you.”

Namaste,

 

Marc Beaudin


Marc Beaudin is the author of The Moon Cracks Open: A Field Guide to the Birds and Other Poems and the play Frankenstein, Inc. His work has been seen in Avocet, Watershed, The MacGuffin, Temenos and numerous other journals. He is the poetry editor of CounterPunch. He new book, Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals, a travel memoir with poetry, is forthcoming from Elk River Books. More at CrowVoice.com.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To Alice Munro, from the Other Midwest


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


 

Dear Alice Munro,

If you and my grandmother were at a party at opposite ends of the room, I would introduce you. She is nine years older than you, born into a farming family just across our countries' shared border, and is largely uncelebrated. She had her children young and raised them well. Like you, she has a formidable intelligence, a dry sense of humor, a long memory for the stories she's heard.

Of course, even if it weren't extremely unlikely – the two of you meeting – I can't presume to know whether you would enjoy her company. Like many strangers, she is an admirer of your work. That's all. Now, she is nearing the end of her life. The last time I saw her – probably the last time I will ever see her – was two years ago at her assisted living facility in northern Michigan, and I had given her one of my own short stories to read. I think I associate you with her, Alice Munro, because of the intense respect I have for you both. The fear I felt, going into that room, was tangible. I could see my heart beating at the periphery of my vision. Suddenly, I remembered that there were curse-words in my story. More importantly, I worried that it wasn't any good.

My grandmother handed me the stapled pages. She had annotated them in faint pencil, that familiar script that I always struggled to decipher in her letters. The first thing she remarked upon was inconsistent spacing in my manuscript. Sometimes I used two spaces after a period and sometimes only one. Her eye, keen from decades of part-time editorial work, caught that error at once.

But she had a substantive comment, too. My grandmother told me that I should put more of myself into my fiction. She said that I should be more like you – she mentioned you by name. In a way, I believed I had been misunderstood then – what I had given her felt very personal to me – but I knew that to allow myself to feel hurt would not be useful. My grandmother, who had known me all my life, had read my work carefully, this infant story's barely-developed skull soft in her hands, and she looked deep into its eyes and couldn't see me looking back. She advised me to strive, above all else, to be honest in what I wrote. In 1994, you told two interviewers from the Paris Review that the material which is closest to you is that from your own life. “If I just relax,” you told them, “that’s what will come up.”

If the two of you were at a party, I would introduce you, but it's hard to imagine this now, because my grandmother fell and broke her leg and was moved to a nursing home and she doesn't know anymore which end of the cordless phone to speak into and which end to hold to her ear. She has always had an abiding interest in the people around her. Now, for the first time, that interest is flagging. She doesn't write letters anymore. When I spoke to her recently on the phone – my aunt helping her to hold it – she mentioned without irony the apocryphal belief that indigenous people in the far northern reaches of Canada leave their elders on the ice when it is time for them to die.

She said that she wanted that, or that it was noble. I can't remember exactly. I'm not like you two; I'm a forgetting machine. Things that are hard or painful, I forget right away.

You told the Wall Street Journal last year after winning the Nobel Prize, “I just write it the way I feel it and that’s it.” I believe you, Alice Munro. But in order to do that successfully, one must be scrupulously honest about the way one feels. I remember very well what my grandmother said to me about honesty – that it is a form of bravery. She has always showed me, by teaching and by example, how to be brave.

This letter is an honest one. Every word of it is true.

Sincerely,

K


 

 

https://nfrmtnpls.wordpress.com/

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: Letter to an Admirer of Whitman


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our print edition, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com.


George_C._Cox_-_Walt_Whitman_-_Google_Art_Project

Dear Philene –

I never did answer the question you asked in New Delhi. You probably forgot about it when we ran from the police station after they tried extorting me for reporting the pick-pocket. But your request has haunted me, “Tell me more about Whitman’s genius.” Volumes have been written about Walt and my letter, sketched on this train to Agra, may not give you what you want to know but I’ll try.

I’d say, he knew how to pause, how to observe, how to synthesize his deft observations into a written micro view for an intuited macro view. To use the description of Wordsworth on what poets do, “write strong feelings recollected in tranquility.”

This required a piece of his soul, less dramatically, a primary ability to feel something. My professor once said that most of his counseling clients fell asleep telling their own story. They couldn’t feel anything about their own lives, let alone anyone or anything else.

I mourn that inability in an emotionally blunted American culture. Perhaps it’s different in Holland. Empathy and the ability to feel is important not just for a poet, but for a person. I read that some communication scholars believe empathy is the most important communication skill.

Empathy is the ability to feel my experience first and then feel what others feel. Whitman had that ability, along with powers of emotional recall and disclosure. He was moved to strong words not just when looking at a stack of arms and legs in a Civil War battlefield hospital, but during all encounters.

Yet if empathy was the only skill, anyone could write like Whitman. It also takes linguistic gifts to the degree that a writer can create something memorable: or in the words of David Tracy, writing in The Analogical Imagination, a classic. Tracy wrote that a classic speaks to all generations. Walt did.

I think he was a writer conscious of his legacy. In “Poets to Come,” he reaches out to people like you and me, writers haunted by wind and air and water and everything. “I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,/ I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness/ I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping,/ turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face.”

But he’s coy, for he never just sauntered along, casually looking. He stops, looks deeply and feels profoundly. Many writers can stop, some can look, but not all feel with a full and gutty primal empathy.

Looking down the road, he bows to the future in the poem you liked, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” when he imagines you and I peering down to the Brooklyn River, seeing the shadows cast by our hair upon the tide flow. His writing of time and tide captured the flow of history, and that is why we still read him, it is why his work is classic.

Raising the bar of his observations, Walt grasped intellectual/philosophical/mythological history and their role in the development of our human story. This is something offered by all great artists and all works of magnum status. Here’s a teaspoon from a large volume, “Song of Myself.”

Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah and laying them away

Lithographing Kronos and Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson

Buying drafts of Osiris and Iris and Belus and Brahma and Adonai

In my portfolio placing Manitou loose and Allah on a leaf and the crucifix engraved

With Odin, and the hideous-faced Mexitil, and all idols and images

He did not lazily pause, his curiosity and ambition far too strong: “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen.” Listening is no small feat, for true listening it is an active investment in the now.

I’m reminded of Rilke, in his poem, “The Panther.” He watched the caged, pacing animal for weeks and then wrote the poem. Neither was Walt content until his contentedness was grounded in the pause, the listening body, peering from under droopy eyelids. How is this for stop, listen, look and learn: “I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…they are so placid and self-contained, / I stand and LOOK at them sometimes half the day long.”

His linguistic skill, observational prowess and patience, empathy, intellectual maturity, breadth of synthesis, and emotional recall combined with a fierce appreciation and love for the world… that’s genius.

An American poet, Louis Simpson, once wrote that poets should, “Have a stomach that can digest/ Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems./ Like the shark, it contains a shoe./ It must swim for miles through the desert/ Uttering cries that are almost human.”

Even by that toothy measure, I’d say Walt qualified. His telltale cry was a barbaric yawp, formed out of a comprehensive vision of and full bodied response to the total human and cosmic experience.

I suspect if anyone had sliced open the belly of Mr. Whitman, they would have found all manner of dark and light treasures, fragments of notebooks and an attending grief from bedrooms and battlefields.

As for your question about poets that stand on his shoulders, I like Maya Angelou and Carl Sandburg. Angelou anchors history in the present like no one I’ve known, except perhaps Anna Ahkmatova. Angelou’s poem on the inauguration of President Bill Clinton stuns me in its perfection.

And Sandburg, writing deeply of Abraham Lincoln, celebrated the pure physical labor of man and woman. I name it, Sandburgian Socialism and Midwestern Storycism, a sculpting of broad-shouldered and redemptive myth from hard materials. Sandburg stands squarely in the Chicago tradition of loving critic, his heart broken by city and country.

There’s more Philene, but my train is stopping and I’m off to see the Taj Mahal. I’ll write more about Mr. Whitman, but in the meantime, take a good bite of what’s in front of you, and keep writing.

Cordially,

Greg


Gregory Ormson earned an M.A. in English from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. He’s worked as a journalist, business writer, and sports writer. His work has been published in Quarterly West, The Trinity Seminary Review, The Seventh Quarry (Wales), Elephant Journal, The Yoga Blog, Horizons and Entrée.’ He won a 13-word tweet contest sponsored by The Indiana Review. He lives in Hawaii where he does yoga, rides his Harley-Davidson, and writes.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To William Gaddis from Brenden

William_Gaddis_1975


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our print edition, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email cutbankonline@gmail.com.


 

Dear Mister William Gaddis,

Several days ago I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I stood in the semi-darkness of the Magritte exhibit for the second time in a week.  I held onto my tiny notepad with my left hand.  My pen was clipped to a page, poised to write down any thought that came to me while looking at Magritte’s work. Somewhere around the third turn of the exhibit, before Magritte’s Parisian years, a security guard snapped at me, “No sketching.” I didn’t quite understand if I heard him right, why would he care if I sketched. “What?” I asked. He stood under one of the very few lights in the exhibit, and the spotlight made the black hair on his head more brittle, made his mustache look as if he had daggers hanging above his lip. He said again, “There’s no sketching of the paintings.” “I’m not sketching,” I said quietly, scrunching my eyebrows to express confusion. “You’re not allowed to sketch the paintings.” Although he repeated himself, I simply walked away without repeating myself. What did it matter if on this little pad I sketched the painting near the guard, the image of Magritte’s wife tearing through a bird with her teeth, blood dripping onto us, the voyeur? How would that be a danger to the work, to Magritte’s exhibit? Each piece was googleable. Every painting was some piece of merchandise in the gift store. What would I expose to the world, if I, with this pen and lined paper, recreated what I saw? Would I be the extreme detriment if I stood in front of the lions of the Art Institute, and sold my sketches for a dollar to those walking by, those going up the steps to see the real deal. Since I was not going to be visiting any sand over summer, I eschewed any book that might remotely be considered a beach read.  Which, if I’m being honest, left only your book, The Recognitions.  As I weight lifted your book throughout summer, reading only fifty pages a week, a curious thing happened, our anti-hero, Wyatt, became a permanent fixture in my mind.  Wyatt, who turned to forgery, arguably because his own work wasn’t available to the public for sale.   When Rectall Brown, the real con man, arrived, and gave Wyatt an out from the job he loathed, gave him the opportunity to be an artist whose paintings sold--an artist with a catch--Wyatt snatched up the opportunity. But the act of copying the masters came, I believed, with the consequence of creating a replica of a life that wasn’t his own. A replica–I presumed–that would be his great demise. You see, Mister William Gaddis, the security guard had seen through me, knew I was no different than Wyatt.  In my own quiet way, I became a forger.  For the past year and a half, I worked on a project, although entirely my own writing, that was a forgery of a dream that was not my own.  I was falling into the trap, whether I admitted it or not, of Rectall Brown’s statement, “That’s what anybody wants … Everyone to stand up and cheer.” And here was what stopped me cold, Wyatt, in his attempt to cast aside Rectall Brown’s offer, argued, “Every work of art is a work of perfect necessity … Damn it, when you paint you don’t just paint, you don’t just put lines down where you want to, you have to know, you have to know that every line you put down couldn’t go any other place, couldn’t be any different.” I once prescribed to that idea of “perfect necessity.”  Had my progression been that of the aspiring creator, to pragmatic forger, to nothing? If I turned off the writer, turned off that part of my brain, that part of my emotions, would everything be better?  On paper, I had all the trappings for leading a normal, healthy, productive and happy life. And yet, I felt distant from these words: normal, healthy, productive, happy.  Was it the writer who kicked at these words, and then ran away from these words? The next day I returned to the exhibit, to that spot just before the Parisian years, to look for the guard, hoping he would be there to tell me no sketching. I could stand under his light and say, I won’t be sketching. But the guard with the dagger mustache was not there. I turned the corner and viewed “The Double Secret”: an exploration on the visible self versus the unconscious self.  I knew then, I suppose I knew before then, though the writer survived, my two selves would continue to wage war over the replica and the original. After leaving Magritte’s work, I drove to my parent’s home.  My mom provided my niece and I each a frame to paint. For several hours, I retraced and recolored. As my niece went on to other drawings, other games, other fictional realities, I stayed with my frame.  The neighborhood kids gathered around to watch me, their push pops melting on my clothes.  I sat there, on the driveway, the roof of the garage shading me from the afternoon sun, summing my inner-Wyatt, making sure every line I put down couldn’t go any other place, couldn’t be any different. Reading your novel is like my life as an artist: a long, slow crawl. But your novel reminds me that I'm there, close to the ground, moving. Even if my progress is some funky design from an arts and crafts project, even if I’m just writing about a book I’m reading, a book I might not even like. I’m here. Telling a story.

Your reader of about 457 pages,

Brenden Wysocki


Brenden Wysocki lives in Chicago, IL.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To Hugo from Cowdry; Big Timber

Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. Visit our online submissions page for details.

Letter to Hugo from Cowdry

by George Kalamaras

Okay, Dick, I’m obsessed. John told me don’t
start a poem but with an image stunning
disease. I’m going for conversation.
The way you dreamed. Each Montana town,
a porridge of origin left burning
the stove. We’re driving through Cowdry—Mary Ann
and Bootsie and me—as if all twelve houses
were lanterns in the thatch. Only Grizzly Liquors
and the post office have a name. There’s a photo
of a hanged man in an Ogallala motel
I’d rather forget. My modification is mixed, fixed
as it is on always wanting things both ways
at once. You’re alive, Dick, but dead. There
is aching in my friend, Andy, and it is gone.
And Muncie, Indiana, will never be dropped, doe-heavy,
during deer season. Red Cloud’s War was the only one
Native Peoples ever won against the troops.
And all the sandhill cranes lay eggs that contain
not the bloody Bozeman Trail but linguistic salve that hurts.

Okay, I’m obsessed with saying things Dick.
Commas transparent, my modification keeps incubating
me. Making me Kalispell. Making me
Missoula. Give me liberty or give me
depth. Allow the sound of my said-wrongs
to give girth to all thinning. Air
is air in Cowdry, the old-timer leaned
into his own face. A morning shave
is a way to get things close. Enough,
I might scream, about donkeys and plows
pressuring the prairie. The plains extend beyond
Cowdry as if a dead Colorado town can no longer kill
the scent of manure long in rain.

Let me put it this way: if a honey badger
bled broken plates of moon I’d know each den
from Steamboat Springs to Laramie, the cows
of Cowdry dropping milk that won’t flow. This town
is so small Wikipedia won’t give
the precise number of milking pails
or population. Sanity measured in zip codes
and whiskey. And 80434 is not the number
of bottles on the shelf but words of hurt
families of love speak in winter
desperation.

                   Okay, John told me don’t.
Never begin a poem I could not die.
The poem starts here, he might say. My verbs
nixed. My nouns pronounced as this loud
and that. Mountain curve and perpetual plain. Colorado
and cloudy conversation. I’m going for Dick.
The spaces you fell. Places you tendered
and toughed into tongue. Real or imagined,
I saw the fox five times in a week.
He was crossing the road in Cowdry. She was crossing
the road out as a safe place to den. Home is where
the start is—a word in a poem, a disease
that heals. The tonguing thrush of so much
wingèd bleed decomposing corpse to corpse
in the large intestine of a turkey buzzard
nailed to the hollow of a trunk. All things are possibly
driving through Cowdry, through the center
of what’s gone. Absence makes the heart
grow fodder. Divine provender
to intercede. What’s gone is the idea
that a word spoken just so might finally make it
right. I was crossing she was crossing it was
word-spur and blur. Noun the verb. Mine
the shaft, Dick. North Park. Woods Landing.
West Laramie. I bring Cowdry
to you to disrupt the bear-tear of words.
To say you’re not alone on the drive
from this ache to that. To dispel
the loud of lonely lovely in your gut.

 

What Thou Lovest Well. Letter to Hugo from Big Timber

by George Kalamaras
 

Once more, I’m tasting the animal.
What Thou Lovest Well Remains Dead.
Actually, you said American, Dick,
not Dead, but America and death mostly agree.
I’ve been to places you tried to keep,
even as you gave yourself away.
The Afghani cameleer bags on the walls
of the only coffeehouse in a grain
and railroad town like Livingston.
Why, afterwards, were all the train cars
suddenly Bactrian in their rumbling back-ache
strain? I said copper. I said coal. I said
the Big Timber sheep ranch I lived
on never lost its stench of damp wool.
Even when sold and converted to cabins.
You try losing your Indiana hound-dog
roots in the snowfields of the Crazies
and see if you, too, will beg
to be shot at the wall, the glare
of the glaciers making you inane.

Wait. You did lose your Seattle roots—that house
on West Marginal Way—though searched them out
in the yeasty grain of lives fermenting
on barstools. Your fellow Montana drunks. How many
would lose a lung, if they looked ahead years
beyond the painting of that bloody elk
bellowing the wood above the bar,
like you? Any picture on the shelf
above the booze might mean hope, 
even if that hope was learning how to die
just right. You felt marginal because a street
named you, just in the way it kept you as a child
from the world? I can’t say I’m whole. So much
of me keeps flaking off into coy dog
scat and their yoating down the draw.
My neighbor is once again practicing skeet,
and it’s me that flies out, a clay pigeon,
bulls-eye wide, each time I hear the command to pull.

Honestly, Dick. I tasted the animal
as it dropped to its knee. My grandfather from Greece
loved bullfights because things won and lost
on t.v. each Saturday night, live from Mexico City.
And stakes were high, driven into the poor beast’s
neck. I tasted the animal in the garter snake
I killed with a hoe. I will never forget
the tiny eggs at seven and vowing my life.
Tasted my father’s downward glance
during Sunday visitation when, in 1959,
divorce meant a forehead scored by a year of ash,
as if we got glanders from the nose cavity
of a horse’s infected breath. Tasted it
in my first woman’s trembling
I cried to touch, touching myself in her
joy-clenched face.

                           Things get abstract fast.
You urged we risk the sentimental.
I can only eat so much damp wool
before the bleating shears
me. There is life and there is life.
I’ve said so little of Big Timber
I’m a brute. I see you in Red Lodge,
in Dillon, in Butte, among the copper mothers
of the world. So many sons have given
over to the mines. So many lungs,
like yours, opting out of difficult breathing
ways. I found a wounded rattler on the gravel
four weeks back and could not take the car
back over it to complete the kill.
It seemed to beg. Maybe we’re all dying a little,
pleading out our red-quick tongue for the tires
to make it right? I tasted the animal
in the way I love even you, even
after years our bodies never met.
Our animal selves left on a shelf to bellow
above bottles of whiskey about to break
a life. Or a shelf of books
we write and few if any ever read.
What Thou Lovest Well Remains Dead, Dick.
Whatever we love, whatever we fear,
we somehow kill and must love well.
 

George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras

George Kalamaras, Poet Laureate of Indiana, lived many years in Colorado. He is the author of seven full-length books of poetry and seven chapbooks, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth, winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook award (2012), Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Prize (2011), and The Theory and Function of Mangoes, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series (2000). He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990. 

Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:

·         John Haines

·         Dan Gerber

·         Li Ch'ing-chao 

·         Richard Hugo (2018)

·         Federico García Lorca

·         Bill Tremblay

·         Gerrit Lansing

·         Robert Bly

·         Judith Emlyn Johnson

·         Ray Gonzalez

·         James Wright

Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your ow

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To Alexander Pushkin from Brooklyn

alexander_pushkin


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our print edition, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print.


 

Aleksander Sergeyevich:

This is going to sound crazy, but I’m writing this in order to make 100% sure that you are dead.

Are you?

You don’t have to tell me, like, personally. Maybe just publish a new poem. Or turn up as a reality TV contestant. Or let yourself be photographed on the Bronze Horseman statue in St. Petersburg. Things are pretty crazy in your old country right now. (Or maybe you’re alive and you already know that.) I think it might help if you turned up, even just for a minute. Just long enough for someone to film a Vine.

Here’s why I’m suspicious: you don’t seem dead. When I lived in St. Petersburg for a summer in 2009, I visited your apartment. Granted, the fact that they let me into your house—along with anyone else with 40 rubles to spare—is a pretty red flag that you’re not around to complain about it. But the whole place looked like you’d just stepped out to run an errand. Papers shuffled on your desk. Books with broken spines. A letter-opener you’d been chewing on as you read, still showing the bite-marks. Your blood still on the couch. Okay, so blood doesn’t look good, either, but you’re supposed to have been dead for 177 years. Am I crazy for thinking that couch-blood might be fresher than that? (Are you okay, wherever you are? Are you hurt?)

I’m looking for you because--well, I don’t really know why. I’m looking for you to figure out why I’m looking for you. What I know for sure is that you’ve affected my life a lot more than most dead people. Certainly more than most dead people I don’t even know that well. You’re not my ancestor or my muse or my hero. Twenty-nine is a few too many duels for me to understand. (How much validation of your honor did you need?) Truth be told, I don’t even “get” poetry. So your hold over me doesn’t make sense.

One time at a party in grad school—the kind of party where this joke would play big, where people were already tipsily debating the differences between illuminated manuscripts—I dismissed you as only my second favorite duel-losing Alexander, after Hamilton. Ha ha ha! Get it? Oh, it killed.

I do love Alexander Hamilton, actually. That wasn’t just a (hilarious) joke. But my love for him isn’t mysterious. I live in the country he helped build. I went to the college he founded. I feel a (mostly unearned) kinship of ideals and background with him. And I love him the way you’re supposed to love a dead cultural icon. I read doorstop biographies and spout anecdotes from them to polite, long-suffering friends. (Did you know that Ben Franklin taught Hamilton’s wife to play Backgammon? You’re welcome!) I occasionally visit his grave—but only because I live 20 minutes away by subway. Every year I mean to throw a party for his birthday and then forget. And that’s how you’re supposed to pay tribute your historical dead.

At least, it is for Americans. But Russia is different. Or you’re different. Or I’m different with you.

The first time I ever heard your name was in the first of my Russian Studies major’s required language classes. (Yes, at Hamilton College.) My new professor mentioned you and stopped mid-sentence to make the class—ten of us, each fiddling with a first-day nametag on which we’d clumsily copied our name in Cyrillic without understanding the letters, like ABBA singing in English—stand up while he slowly emphasized your full name. Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin. He beamed at us for a moment, reverent. Then he let us sit down and finished his sentence.

At the time, I thought it was just him. A particularly big fan. But then you were everywhere. You turned up in every class, every semester, for four years—literature, history, language, folklore, politics. You had written a poem; you had inspired an opera; you had caused Nabokov to throw a fit; you had married a beautiful woman; you had died in an affair of honor (yours and hers); you had cemented Peter the Great’s legacy; you had borrowed from ancient themes of birds and magic circles. I was never asked again to stand for your name—but I always got the impression that if I had, my professors would have understood.

Is it just me, or is this a doubly impressive ubiquity for a poet to have achieved? People don’t really go into poetry for fame and fortune anymore. How did you do it? How did you hook us all?

This happens all over. My girlfriend took an introductory Russian language class at her college, too, and guess what it was called: “Russian Through Pushkin I.” How about that! After just a few classes spent learning the alphabet and verb declension, they jumped straight into translating The Bronze Horseman. Now she knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “There, by the billows desolate, He stood, with mighty thoughts elate, and gazed, but in the distance only a sorry skiff on the broad space of Neva drifted seaward, lonely.

I didn’t encounter the poem until later in my study of the language, but when I did, I had to memorize the prologue. I remember reciting it in the language lab, filming myself on iMovie, staring at the bottom of the monitor in concentration. The moss-grown miry banks with rare hovels were dotted here and there where wretched Finns for shelter crowded; the murmuring woodlands had no share of sunshine, all in mist beshrouded. “You look so sad!” my professor said, reviewing the footage. “Cheer up! You’re young and alive and there is Pushkin!”

It’s a beautiful poem, of course. You know that, don’t you? You know you’re brilliant. You make me wish I understood poetry. You make me wish I understood Russian.

In the years since that summer I spent in St. Petersburg and since graduating from college, I’ve plummeted from semi-fluency in Russian to barely remembering a few disassociated words and phrases. I hate this fact. But I still know, with a kind of linguistic muscle memory, the entire prologue to The Bronze Horseman. And when I want to feel like there’s hope for me yet, that maybe I’ll crack open those old books and be bilingual after all, be the person I wanted to be when I was eighteen and chose my major—in those moments, I close my eyes and recite your poem. Here cutso nature gives commandyour window through on Europe; stand firm-footed by the sea unchanging! Like a promise; like a prayer; like ABBA singing “Dancing Queen.”

But before all this backsliding, I was in your city for a summer, and in your house, and in the restaurant you ate in on the morning of your death.

I took a Saturday and didn’t tell anyone where I was going while I retraced the steps of your last day. I don’t know why I was so secretive about it. When I go to Alexander Hamilton’s grave I tell everyone; I invite people along. I think I just didn’t know what I was doing with you. I couldn’t—I can’t—explain why I wanted to go and see where you had your last cup of coffee, see where you were shot. So I snuck off to do it. Is that weird?

Probably. I made a lot of weird decisions that summer. Some of it was culture shock, but only some. I was nineteen when I got to St. Petersburg and I had never lived in a City before. I had never ridden a bus that didn’t stop at the end of my driveway and take me straight to school. I had almost never had alcohol before, either, and it was legal for me to buy it there. I spent a lot of that summer drinking canned gin & tonics (with grapefruit flavoring added) in parks, and worrying that I was spending too much money (I wasn’t), and worrying that I wasn’t writing enough (I wasn’t), and doing mental acrobatics to convince myself that I was happy being with my college boyfriend and only felt the way I did about our relationship because I missed him. I learned a lot of Russian and also a lot about public transportation.. I translated one of your stories for class. I toured gorgeous art and architecture. I saw statues of you everywhere. I developed a crush on one of my fellow ex-pat sutdents. He posed with another girl, the two of them lounging on the huge stone statue of a book of your poetry by the Neva. I took their picture. It’s blurry—you can see the chiseled words, but not that they’re yours.

In two months, I wrote two sentences. Did you ever have writer’s block? I don’t know why, but I think probably not.

So while I was being unproductive and confused and figuring things out far from home, after seeing your seemingly freshly-vacated apartment and its bloody couch, I decided it was important to understand what happened to you. So I followed you to your death.

I paid too much for a coffee with milk at the cafe you ate in before your duel. (I messed up the order the first time, and shame at the waiter’s mocking smile made my cheeks burn the whole time I was there. Coming and going, I walked past the stairs you had used to come and go. They were under plexiglass. “By these steps, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin...” the plaque began.

I saw you, in the cafe. I jumped. But you know where this is going, you’re laughing at me already--it was the wax statue of you, the one they’ve set up sitting by the window. You were—it was—staring into the middle distance, ignoring us all..

The thing is, I kept seeing you after I left the cafe. Walking the streets, I imagined you walking them. (Or did I really see you? Were you there? Do you remember me?) You were on your way to shoot--you thought, perhaps--a frenchman for wooing your wife. It would be your twenty-ninth duel. I started to daydream about saving you. I ‘d grab your arm and muscle you into a bookstore. I’d jump escalators in the metro and hang from your lapels. “You don’t have to do this,” I’d say. Ne nado, ne nado. But even in my fantasies, I worried you wouldn’t understand my accent.

You received your fatal wound—maybe—outside of town, across a set of train tracks, in a park with an obelisk on the spot where you fell. None of that was there then, of course. But it is now, and crossing the tracks reminded me of Stand By Me in a way that made me feel younger and in more danger and most of all more American than ever. There were two little boys hitting each other with sticks in the park. And there were locals, suspicious locals, staring in bald judgment as I lurked around the sacred spot, camera in hand. I was ashamed, again, of being the outsider I was--too immature and overwhelmed to write or speak.

Distracted by embarrassment, I lost the thread of you. I stopped seeing you. I guess it should have been a relief, like snapping out of something crazy, but I was disappointed. I felt like I’d finally been on to something.

My professor had said that I was young and alive and there was Pushkin. It suddenly seemed like none of those things could be true unless they all were.

I kept looking all day, zoning out all across the city. I must have looked like your wax dummy. And I felt like I was looking for you not as a timid tourist on a bookish pilgrimage but as a PI might search for a client on the lam. I’d barely hung my shingle when I got my first case--this dame blew into my office in a dress she’d been poured into and a pillbox hat. “The name’s Mother Russia,” she said, holding back tears, “and I think something terrible has happened.” You’d survived twenty-eight other duels; why should this one have killed you? I took the case.

I guess I’m still looking for you. A lot has changed since I tried to hunt you down in St. Petersburg. It’s been five years and I’ve figured out a lot about myself and my writing. I chose my other duel-losing Alexander, I guess, and moved to Brooklyn where I can be close to him. But I still think about you all the time. I still recite your words whenever I need to feel like it’s still possible for me to change and grow, like I’m not cemented yet. And I still wish I’d found you that summer, assuming you were really what I was looking for.

I guess I just realized that in all this process of flailing in the dark--standing on command, incanting verses whose meaning I’ve forgotten, stalking your ghost—I never tried just asking you where you are. Maybe you’re not even hiding. Maybe you just don’t know anyone’s looking for you.

So. I’d appreciate it if you’d show yourself. Until then, I’ll just keep up my phonetic hoping. Ay, ships of every flag shall come by waters they had never swum, and we shall revel, freely ranging.

Let’s hang out sometime. I’m young and alive and there is you.

 

Olivia Wolfgang-Smith

 


Olivia Wolfgang-Smith earned her MFA in Fiction from Florida State University. Her work has been longlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and published in Necessary Fiction, The Common, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She is the Social Media Editor of The Common. She lives in New York and is originally from Rhode Island.