Hemingway – Thoughts on Watching the Ken Burns Documentary

Yes, of course, it’s hokey and old-fashioned to say this, but Ernest Hemingway changed my life. And I know exactly when it started. Exhausted and beat up after a high school football game, I lay awake the rest of the night, starting and finishing The Old Man and the Sea. Which led me in the following weeks of my senior year to all the other novels, even that enormous tome about deep sea fishing Islands in the Stream, which I hauled around for a month. And then the terse beauty of the Nick Adams short stories, which hit me harder than anything I’d ever read before, and probably, more than anything else, got me dreaming of writing myself.

Setting out to write, like so many other newbies, I took Hemingway’s gnomic commandments to heart. Go to work at dawn, when your head is clear and there are no distractions. Write when you’ve learned something you know to be true. Start when you can with “one true sentence” and go on from there. Stop when you know what will happen next, then go have some fun for the rest of the day. I’ve always been a part-time writer, making my living another way, but I’ve kept to that schedule, though instead of going out to have fun at the end of my writing time, like most writers I’ve had to clock in somewhere else. 

A visit to Key West and Hemingway’s home there a couple years ago led me to biographies, notably Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat that centers on the prolific Pilar years in Key West and Cuba, and A.E. Hotchner’s rollicking memoir Papa Hemingway, that drops you into the circle of pals who marveled at the writer’s joie de vivre. Their swash-buckling anecdotes put to shame the hotel smashing silliness of latter-day rock’n’roll celebrities:  Things like shooting himself in the leg when aiming for a shark, punching out the poet Wallace Stevens, wooing Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich, and the bull fights, the big game hunts, the U-boat chases.  Most especially, the battlefront in three great wars.

None of the biographies ends happily, of course. They all run up against Hemingway’s dark slide into psychosis, disorganized writing, and that shotgun in a cabin in Idaho.  Burns, like other biographers, blames a family history of depression, what Hemingway himself called the “black ass”, that he battled much of his life.  There is mention of post-traumatic stress disorder, driven by all the death he witnessed and so chillingly depicted from those wars.  The thing that interests me, and that seems to be neglected in the biographies and in Burns’ film, too, is Hemingway’s history of repeated head injuries.

I’m an occupational therapist who specializes in brain injury.  I founded and ran a community reentry program for people with brain injury in Charlottesville and served as board president of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia. I’ve treated a lot of people emerging from coma, concussed from a car crash, lobotomized by a gunshot to the head.  And I’ve seen how brain injuries can scramble thinking, erase memory, torture sleep, ruin judgment, and lead to impulsivity, emotional disregulation and depression. This is the constellation of problems a brain injury clinician expects and works to resolve.

So when I read about Hemingway’s famous initial injury, the artillery blast in World War I that led him to write his magnificent war romance A Farewell to Arms, about the bizarre incident in Paris of a chandelier falling on his head that knocked him out and left a C-shaped scar on his forehead, about the pair of head injuries suffered in World War II, about the plane crash in Africa that put him in a coma for a week, and about all his many bare-fisted boxing matches in Key West, I couldn’t help but think of what we have been learning about the effects of cumulative brain trauma from professional boxers, and NFL and NHL players. Biographers can appear stymied by Hemingway’s collapse. His fall seems precipitous, this super-humanly robust genius reduced to chronic headaches, paranoid rants, alcoholism, delusion, confabulation, the inability to work, and finally suicide. To me, speaking as a brain injury clinician, it’s quite familiar.

I don’t see how anyone can overlook what happened to Hemingway in Africa in 1954, suffering two small plane crashes in as many days that might have killed him. Newspapers reported that cerebral fluid leaked from his nose in the hospital. He endured the final seven years of his life in pain and bewilderment, anger and despair.  In seven years in Key West during the 1930s, Hemingway wrote his classic novels A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not, the ground-breaking bull-fighting chronicle A Death in the Afternoon, and his story collection The Green Hills of Africa.  In seven years in Idaho, at the end, he fumbled with what was left, fragments shaped into books only after he died (among them Islands in the Stream and the autobiographical A Moveable Feast, from which so much of his writerly guidance has been gleaned).

Ernest Hemingway suffered repeated severe brain injuries. His behavior changed after each of them, and it seems he was never treated as a brain injury survivor, only towards the end seen briefly as a psychiatric patient (and given shock treatment, about the worst thing you can do to a damaged brain).  Maybe someone with experience in treating the manifold challenges of brain injury could have helped.  We’ll never know.

I have been working for pay since fourth grade. In one month, I retire from my long career as an occupational therapist, and for the first time I’ll be free to write as I wish, as Hemingway counseled, with some fun when you’re done in the afternoon.  If my idea of fun is a walk in the woods with my pup, a bike ride with a son, sketching a seashell, or grabbing a beer with a friend, all the better.  Few can live like Hemingway and no one would want the scars that came with such a life. And no one can write like him either, though we all labor under his influence.  What we can do is get up in the morning and strive to write a true sentence. In that endeavor, wish me well.

A typewriter at Hemingway’s home in Key West.

100th Breonna Taylor Poem Tweeted

Have been tweeting two poems a day, all in the style of Sappho, and posted the last one in the collection just now at https://twitter.com/tony_gentry. Here are a couple I really like from the final 10:

98.

So, officer:

Just think
when corona came

that woman you killed
the one who worked in the ED?

Had she lived
she mighta

saved your grandma.

99.

I have no complaint.

I worked fifteen-hour shifts
to save people:

Dead, I won’t
be forgotten.

3 Possums in the Woods

Came upon a trio of opossums (why that first o, I’ll never know) digging in the compost pile behind the house yesterday and by the time I got back indoors was rhyming this ditty to myself.

One played dead
one got mad
and the other climbed a tree.

Made me wonder
which one would I be?

Would I faint
or would I snarl
or would I try to flee?

Soon enough
the time will come
and then I guess we’ll see.

By the way, here are two of them, the guy on the left played dead, partner bared his teeth, and out of frame, the other (with hilarious slowness) climbed that tree.

Breonna Taylor Poems

By the end of the week, will have posted all 100 Sappho-inspired poems in honor of Ms. Taylor on Twitter. Posting here an especially topical one, with the Chauvin murder trial entering its second week. (To read them all, go to @tony_gentry on Twitter and scroll.)

93.

Yes Breonna, you may be sure
Across the globe the people
Will spread your name.

Tell the life we shared here,
Make of you a goddess incarnate,
The best among us.

Now among newscasters
Floyd in his turn claims the headlines
As the red-fingered moon
Rising at sunset takes
Precedence over the sky’s stars;

Yet your light spreads equally
On the salt sea and fields thick with bloom
Wherever dew pours down to freshen
Roses, bluegrass, and blossoming
Sweet clover.

Your smile encircles the globe
Your gentle face, so our hearts
Hang heavy with mourning.

We shout aloud, SAY HER NAME!
We know it; thousand-eared night marchers
Repeat our cry across the seas
Shining between us.

Breonna Taylor Died Tonight

One year ago, they killed her. Here on this sorrowful anniversary is the foreword to my manuscript of poems in her honor, Breonna: Poems after Sappho.

Parodies can be satires, but not always. They can also be loving tributes, which is my intention here.

Breonna.  If you take a moment to look at that viral photograph of a uniformed Breonna Taylor — proudly smiling before the seal of the City of Louisville, with a bunch of flowers and her award for stellar service as an emergency medical technician in her arms — don’t you feel like you knew her? Don’t you wish you had? She reminds me of some of the best people I’ve known, nurse’s aides and medical assistants, and other allied health providers, who can stanch blood, restart a heart, safely take down a person in the grip of psychosis. Women whose examples of professionalism, dignity and self-effacing humor taught me, in my health care career, the easily overlooked things that matter so much. How to turn a frail patient or sit patiently for a half hour, spooning food and chatting. How to wipe the ass of an elderly man, powder it, and discreetly dispose of the mess briskly and efficiently, while sparing him any shame or embarrassment. These are not little things. They are acts on which a civil society hinges.

Clearly, Breonna understood that life is hard, especially for a Black woman from the working class in a famously racist city. She did not turn away from that knowledge. She chose to help in the most direct way, serving people in emergency. She died at the hands of others paid to “protect and serve,” a tragic irony that we White folk have only begun to appreciate.

Breonna was killed at the very beginning of the pandemic, just weeks after beginning work in the emergency room at a hospital that, as I write this on New Year’s Eve, 2020, is overwhelmed by Covid patients. Think of the lives Breonna might have helped save this year, that she might have yet saved in the coming year, and on down through a long career.

Sappho. The great poet of ancient Greece, acknowledged as such even during her lifetime, her work surviving only in a few allusive, fragmentary verses. What’s left has been translated into English several times. The version I have is Mary Barnard’s from 1958. Succinct, to the point, beautifully spare. Each time you read through its 100 snippets, you learn more. Sometimes I think you could create a whole culture from the collage left us.  At other times, I marvel at Sappho’s delight in small things, her passion and concern for others. A few poems speak of early death, of a young person taken too soon. I think that’s what made the link for me.

The poems. If you care to compare, this book closely follows Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Some of the poems alter only a few words, and a few fragments are not changed at all, because they seem to apply perfectly across the ages. Two of Sappho’s most famous poems resisted my twists and substitutions, so I replaced them with my own, attempting to mimic Barnard’s style. The idea has been to shape an evocative collage of Ms. Taylor’s last day and its aftermath, or what I know of it and can imagine from the news. Awakening at dawn to face the sirens, the rush, and the pain of the emergency room, grabbing a quick lunch with a friend, returning home to her boyfriend Kenneth, to rest her weary bones, so she could do it all over again tomorrow.

Not hard to visualize what happened next.  We’ve seen versions in a hundred cop shows and movies. The assault, the victims on the floor, the grieving families, the rigged justice system. And in Breonna’s case, because enough was enough, the rousing protests around the world. Not hard to imagine at all, but not easy to rest with either. A lot happened in 2020. Breonna’s story sparked some of it.  We owe her so much, but that would be true even if those cruel, heedless detectives had not battered down her door. I wanted to speak to that somehow, and Sappho (please forgive me) came to mind. 

So no, this parody is not a satire. More a eulogy and reflection, at least that is my aim.

The University of California Press, which owns Ms. Barnard’s Sappho translation, has refused the right to publish this manuscript, so I’ve been posting the poems in sequence, two a day, on my Twitter account since mid-February. There are 100 poems in all, and I’ve posted 52 so far, the rest to come. If you care to read them, you can go to @tony_gentry on Twitter, scroll down to the first one, and then scroll up through them all. Or if you like, leave a comment here with your email address and I’ll send you the whole collection as a PDF.

One more thing, if you’re interested, The New York Times has posted an 18-minute video that details what happened at Breonna Taylor’s apartment one year ago today.

February – The Longest Month

Why is it that February, our shortest month, always seems the longest? And this year, as we round toward the first anniversary of the Covid-19 shutdown, wearing doubled masks, teaching and learning via Zoom, scrambling for vaccinations, and this week trying to summon an appropriate mourning for half a million Americans dead (far more than any other country), we slog along in what feels like the longest February ever.

Just now I googled today’s date in 2020.  CNN’s Covid headlines read:

  • Death toll rises to 2,468 in China’s Hubei Province
  • Israel Expands Restrictions on Foreign Nationals as Fears Mount
  • Number of Coronavirus Cases in Italy Rises to 62, 10 Villages Shut Down
  • Number of Global Cases Now Stands at More Than 77,000

Not yet a headline, in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, a stream of ambulances had been rushing residents of a skilled nursing facility called — ironically — Life Care to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. On this day a year ago, 44 Americans were said to have Covid-19. 

And this guy described as a “top infectious disease doctor”, a white-haired Marcus Welby-type named Anthony Fauci, warned on tv that “We are clearly at the brink of a pandemic.” The President, an orange-haired Mussolini-type, had just returned from a political rally in Las Vegas. His day’s agenda was empty, but he stepped onto the porch of the White House for a few minutes to tout the economy. If any reporter asked him about the virus, it didn’t make the news clip.  In two days, he will tell his fateful and most deadly lie:  “The coronavirus is very much under control in the U.S.”

A year later, watching our gray-haired grandfather President try to lasso the horse so long out of the barn, seeing Dr. Fauci more often than we see our neighbors, having buried loved ones while still waiting for some safe date when we can hold memorials for others, we’re all so exhausted. Half a million dead. Benumbed minds boggle. We shrug, don our masks, and trudge on.

BREONNA: Poems after Sappho

Long backstory here, but amidst the Black Lives Matter protests I found myself fascinated (aghast) at the Breonna Taylor saga and for reasons that remain mysterious to me set about matching her story to a translation of the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s poetry. There are 100 poems and poetic fragments in the translation I followed (a 1958 book with translations by Mary Barnard). Unfortunately, the University of California Press, which owns the rights to this translation, does not approve of any adaptation or reuse of the poems, so my hope of publishing the book seems doomed. Instead, I’m going to throw them up one mashup at a time on Twitter, scattering them to the interweb winds, so to speak. If you’re a Twitter follower (heaven help you), hope you’ll check them out at my Twitter account: @tony_gentry.

As a taste of what I’ve been about, and in hopes of not stirring the wrath of the U of C lawyers, here are a couple of the 100 poems I’ll be putting up on Twitter:

82.

We drink your health
Mr. AG!

Now the grand jury we asked for
Is over.
And your ruling is the ruling
They told you to make.

It’s a lie made up
Of some lawyer words
Slick as snot
On a door knob.

See my sign?  See her face,
That Love had lit
With its own beauty?

Her face on the wall
In Paris, London, Nairobi
And this all you got
For us?

83.

To my editor, in DC:

Some say the National Guard
troops, or the armored cars,
Or even the Proud Boys
In their Hawaiian shirts
And bike helmets are the
Finest sights at the rallies.

But I say that whoever
Marches for love, is.

This is easily proved: 

Do not the marchers,
Volunteers, risking their health,
Some their lives,
For justice not move you
More than all that
Mercenary artillery?

Just posted Poem Number 1 on Twitter, only 99 to go!