Notes Toward a Poem about Fireflies

Woke from restless sleep at a north-facing window, the gibbous moon’s light bathing the curtain of woods at the edge of our yard in that monochrome relief I so love – daytime’s Technicolor bled to noir shadow – surprised by a constellation of fireflies flashing and flickering there like Christmas lights strung across the trees or the stars themselves shaken down. The surprise was not that there were fireflies out there, but that there were so many!

This past covid year we have lived at home, have dreamed of travel, have become so bored with the sameness of our rooms and routines.  Funny, how the night before our dream comes true, a vacation flight to California(!), this 3 am interlude shocks me awake to a delightful pageant — frankly worthy of Yosemite — occurring all summer every evening right in my proverbial (and actual) backyard! 

I sit up in my bed at the window, hugging a pillow, enraptured by a silent spectacle that blips streaks and fizzes at varying heights across the moonlit forest backdrop, my sleepy head imagining a flashlight ballet, though each of these winged insects winks not in synch but in competition with his mates, their twinkling display one of Nature’s finer than strictly necessary embellishments, certainly one of its most brilliant expressions of a yearning all living things – and that means me too – plead across our brief lives, a controlled ignition in their loins intermittent, briefly dazzling (dangerous too as it exposes the firefly to predators), the whole moonlit woods decorated with urgent flares that blink one appeal (supplication) at great expense across a summer night – fuck me, please!  Fuck me!  Fuck me please!  (Visual equivalent of the cicada hordes’ relentless droning symphony.)  If I am to leave any mark, if my line is to continue, please find me worthy:  Let me get a leg over, please!  We haven’t long!  On this moonlit summer night, perhaps our last, won’t you find me worthy, please?  

Fireflies or lightning bugs – what we called them as kids?  

How Some Dads I Know Spent the Past Year

On Mother’s Day, made a list of some things moms I know went through in the year of Covid.  So, doing the same for the guys here on Father’s Day.

Went to get takeout and died when a distracted driver t-boned his car.

Took his family on their last vacation in Mexico just as the virus hit, then spent the rest of the year methodically saying his goodbyes and best wishes to everyone he loved before cancer took him.

Spent a month in hospital with a shattered leg, buried his grandmother, did stay-at-home dad helping one teen with autism cope with zoom school and the kid’s twin cope with their discovery of their non-binary gender.

Caught covid (did not have to be hospitalized) driving his softball playing daughter around the South to not quite socially distanced tournaments.

3 dads:  Taught creative writing via zoom, taught occupational therapy via zoom, taught junior high special education via zoom.

Welcomed a new baby into the family while at the same time launching an online occupational therapy business with his wife (which, by the way, is thriving).

Handled three PRN home care therapy gigs while being Mr. Mom to a toddler son (wife an overburdened anesthesia tech at a major hospital).

Stayed home with his toddler daughter, getting his exercise on walks to the park and VR games, while wife – an overburdened anesthesia tech – worked at a major hospital.  (Different family).

Nursed his wife as she died from cancer, then once vaccinated, made the rounds of his widely scattered adult kids (and grandkids) with hugs, laughter, and generosity.

Reconfigured a college curriculum he directed as covid hit, all while completing his dissertation and raising three kids stuck at home and zooming school (this dad, btw, is blind).

Spent four months in solitary confinement in a federal prison, not for disciplinary reasons, but as a precaution against catching covid (a lot more, as you’d imagine, to this story).

It was a tough year for dad’s, too, folks.  Hope we’ve all learned from this ordeal about the importance of love, connection, and caring, along with a sharper appreciation of how tenuous is our time here, and how precious. Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

Mother’s Day 2021

Some things Mom’s I know have gone through in this covid year:

Masked up every day all day at work.
Worked doubles for weeks treating covid patients.
Was laid off after twenty-five years with the same company, eventually finding part-time gigs to keep going.
Was laid off and started her own virtual therapy company – while pregnant.
Nurtured her son who was driving in a car crash that killed her husband and his dad.
Turned her home into a hospice for her dying husband.
Tried to work from home while son had periodic melt-downs while zooming schoolwork in the same room.
Tried to work from home while daughter had periodic melt-downs while zooming schoolwork in the same room.
Figured out how to teach on zoom and face-to-face at the same time.
Organized a socially-distanced funeral for the 99-year old grandmother she had supported for years.
Gently counseled a college-age son who, flushed home from campus, gave up classes for shooter games all semester.
Took in her adult daughter who’d been laid off and lost her apartment.
Picked up volunteer gigs giving vaccinations.
Home-schooled kids who could not manage remote curricula.

No doubt you have your own list of motherly heroics from this harrowing year. Today, let’s all make an extra effort to make this the happiest Mother’s Day it can be, eh?

And re parenting, check out this adorable video our son shot of the bluebirds in our front yard birdhouse.

Today’s My Last Day Teaching

A brilliant Fall afternoon in Charlottesville, the booms of a cannon marking each touchdown scored at the football stadium nearby.  Yesterday, I dared my first aquatic therapy session with a stroke patient, in the therapy pool at the new UVA-Healthsouth Rehabilitation Center down the street, where I work as an occupational therapist.  It was fun.  Seemed to help.  Tomorrow my pregnant wife Chris and I will take our toddler son Nick up Carter Mountain for apples and cider donuts, the first visit of what will become an annual rite.  But today I’m attempting yet another new adventure, delivering my first ever speech at a professional conference, on this topic that I’m just beginning to understand myself, How Activities of Daily Living can Inform and Improve Rehabilitation for People with Brain Injury. 

It seems to go well, at least nobody gets up and leaves before I’m done.  Then as I collect my slides from the projector, one by one, and slot them back in their folder, a professorial looking guy in a tie and jacket comes up, asking a question that for me became fateful words, “Have you ever thought about teaching?”

In the twenty-something years since that first talk, I’ve gone back to school for a PhD, taught a generation of OT students, delivered countless lectures, workshops and seminars in 32 states and six foreign countries, conducted ground-breaking research on the use of mobile devices and smart homes for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges, founded and directed a novel community reentry program for brain injury, and served on the usual professional and foundation boards.  Al Copolillo, that guy who asked the fateful question, is a friend and colleague. For two decades we were the lone males on a staff of talented women in the OT department at VCU.  He lives nearby now, retired from a sterling career, and today I happily – one might say giddily — join him.

This past year’s covid-related challenges have played havoc (this is VCU, of course, where havoc is a basketball cheer) with clinical education.  How do you teach a student to splint a hand, transfer a patient, ultrasound a wound, or repair a wheelchair when you’re not allowed to touch anybody?  We figured it out, lecturing on Zoom, finagling the hands-on labs in masks and goggles, but today thanks to new guidance from the powers that be, I’m turning off my computer, and meeting the students in my stroke seminar at Byrd Park, maskless outdoors, to sum up the semester, wish them well, share some homemade cookies, and leave them to their own careers that I can only hope will spawn memories as full as mine. So much to reflect on, to be grateful for, here at the cusp of what friends call “the next chapter.”  Indeed.

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.

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.

How Things Are Now

A year ago, our grandmother Angelina (Ann) Segno, then age 98, began to have difficulty walking. For several years, she had lived in a rural house in upstate New York, a group home with three other elderly ladies and their caregiver, settling into what my wife Chris calls the happy form of dementia.  We raced north within hours over Christmas break, when she was admitted to hospital after a fall, and spent the next two days visiting nursing homes in the area, seeking a placement for her.  We had an ace in the hole that made this search fruitful. Back in the day, Grandma and Grandpa had bought a cottage in the town of Pelham just outside the Bronx, and after he died and she moved into the group home, it was sold for a tidy sum.  When nursing home managers learned that she wasn’t a Medicaid patient, but could pay out of pocket, beds became available.  We chose the new, bright and airy Lutheran facility in Poughkeepsie, with its activity-focused memory unit, and left for home feeling Grandma had already settled in comfortably there.

Three months later, Covid hit.  We never saw her again. Aunt Mary and Cousin Lisa, who live nearby, visited often, waving at her through a window. For months the memory unit functioned as it had, with music, arts and crafts, and other group activities. But that was considered too dangerous in the fall, so patients were largely confined to their rooms.  Chris was Grandma’s legal guardian, so she spent weekends managing her finances, and weeknights on the phone asking about her condition.  Pictures showed her growing thinner, looking more confused.  A woman who, even in dementia, loved to chair dance, to use her hands, to clap and smile and enjoy the company of others, was made a prisoner to Covid.  Before dawn on New Year’s Eve she died, two months shy of her 100th birthday.

So our family has these bookends, our 102-year old Grandma Connie, who died in the very early weeks of the coronavirus, last March.  And Grandma Angelina. Neither, we think, had the virus.  Both died alone in isolation.

I’ve taught hundreds of occupational therapy students during my tenure at VCU, and some of us stay in touch. Last April, as hospitals reeled with the first onslaught of the virus, they cried on the phone, exhausted, undermanned, treating patients in parking lot tents. Things are more difficult now.  It turns out that many people who survive hospitalization end up with long-term disabling conditions that require rehabilitation therapy.  But home health companies have scant PPE, the nursing homes where many of our graduates work are hot spots, the hospitals are overrun again, and some of my former students have caught covid not once but twice.  Chris, an OT at the VA hospital, has been vaccinated.  My students, one by one, will get their shots, too.  But the cases have spiked dramatically, as has the workload, and everyone is so tired.

Until last month, my friend Corey was in the sixth year of his stay at a minimum security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. A model prisoner, he taught an English language course for Spanish-speaking inmates, served as commissioner of the prison’s softball team, wrote letters and legal pleas for others.  Coronavirus hit the prison hard. As of this writing more than 40 inmates have died, and half the prison population has tested positive.  When newspapers began to write about this, the administrators decided to farm prisoners out across the nation, perhaps as an effort at seeming to care.  Corey — who had survived three covid-positive cellmates, who had heard prisoners cough themselves to death in the SHU (the “hole”), where they were put when their symptoms got too bad — was told that he was on the transfer list.  He spent Thanksgiving in the SHU – a cell with a roommate, a narrow bunk bed, a trickling shower, and a toilet – having broken no rule, as a way to isolate him from Covid in preparation for the move.  After three weeks of pacing wall to wall, they bused him all the way to Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he spent Christmas and New Year’s in that prison’s SHU, and where he lives to this day (45 days and counting now). As would be expected in the institutional Catch-22 that is the American penal system, we now hear that Butner’s Covid case load has zeroed out (perhaps they hit herd immunity), while Yazoo City’s has exploded.  President Trump’s Bureau of Prisons appears to function like much of the rest of his administration, a protracted SNAFU.

I go back into the classroom on the 25th, teaching a hybrid version of my lab-heavy assistive technology course, along with a zoomed stroke seminar, just as the Covid case numbers in Virginia hit their projected peak.  It’s possible that I may get vaccinated, sometime this semester.  Our boys, college seniors, are still in their bedrooms, fledglings flushed back to their nest, learning whatever their professors can teach remotely.

I haven’t mentioned the insurrection at the Capitol.  Driving back from Grandma’s funeral in New York last Wednesday, we listened to it unfurl on the radio. Since then we’ve watched the video footage of the American carnage the impeached (and soon to be re-impeached) President spoke of at his inauguration (even then, that rainy day, didn’t it seem that this was something he craved?).  I’ve been thinking about the day Christmas week, when I drove down to the southern end of Chesterfield County to drop off cookies for my sister, who has become a devout fundamentalist Christian Trump supporter in her retirement.  Nearly two months after the election, on the winding country roads down her way, driveway after driveway waved a Trump flag or a Blue Lives Matter flag or some other flag of the right wing cults. It’s the water she swims in.  But I miss her.

So that’s my update.  President Biden is a brave old man with a hopeful heart, but what a burden he will lift to his narrow shoulders next week!  Covid and Trump and Fox and Friends have conspired to separate us, to tamp down our prospects and set us against each other.  Old folks die alone, hospital workers collapse of exhaustion, prisoners languish, students and teachers pretend to an education, family members unfriend each other.  Military leaders prefer to let the Capitol be invaded, rather than risk putting troops on the Mall, for fear that the President might order them to join the revolt.  But, we say:  Vaccines!  New President!  2021!  Hang in.

Ten Favorite Books of 2020

In 2020, everyone’s concerns have converged, it seems (if our opinions haven’t).  My favorite books helped explain what was happening, provided guidance and insight, even comfort.  Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:

James BaldwinCollected Essays (Library of America):  Name someone else who has spoken truth to power with such precision.  Read chronologically, these essays form a fascinating autobiography, because everything Baldwin wrote about American history, culture and politics erupted from lacerating self-reflection. Not wanting to mar the pages, I’ve filled a notebook with pithy quotations from this volume, which – among other things – articulates as no other text has why Black Lives Matter matters.

Chip Jones – The Organ Thieves:  In this thriller-paced tale of VCU’s failed effort to perform the first heart transplant, Richmond, VA, newpaperman Jones splits the sternum of racial politics and dirty tricks here in the capital of the Confederacy, going all the way back to 19th Century medical school grave robbers and all the way up to the racist decisions that may have killed a Black man to give a White man his heart.

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell – March.  This 3-volume graphic novel-style biography of John Lewis begins with his farm childhood in Alabama and ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the last page a chilling coda concerning the assassinations of 1968. So many people died this year, many we all felt we knew:  Ginsburg and Bryant and Boseman and Prine and Trebek and Connery and Van Halen and (Little Richard) Penniman and (Toots) Hibbert and the list goes on all the way along the line to our own family and yours, too, probably. Lewis’ nationally televised funeral felt like a memorial for all, fitting testament to a man whose life changed ours.

Robert MacFarland – Underland:  I read everything MacFarland writes, joined his Twitter book club this year, and found his new book simply magnificent. It’s about caves and tunnels and secret nooks and the spooky (he would say “eldritch”) beauty of the earth’s entrails.  Somehow, across 500 pages of prose, whole paragraphs read like rich poetry, some lines easily parsed as blank verse.  It’s a dazzling work of subterranean exploration and reflection that I’m re-reading now.

W.S. Merwin – Garden Time:  My dear friend, the poet and disability services worker Sarah Knorr, gave me Merwin’s final book of poems the last time I saw her before her death from cancer (we had tea at Sub Rosa Bakery that late-February afternoon, where I gifted her the MacFarland book).  This may be Merwin’s crowning achievement, each poem diffracting the others, all reflecting an expansive wonder at our temporal existence and our longing for what may last.

Gordon Parks – A Choice of Weapons:  Surprised to find that famous filmmaker and photographer Parks had written a memoir.  Bowled over that he wrote only about his coming of age, stopping before anything like fame came his way.  Gritty, angry, closely observed vignettes about one Black youngster’s travails in an early 20th Century America that had no use for him, each chapter a tightrope walk over a chasm that has claimed so many.  Parks doesn’t pretend that his smarts or ingenuity got him across; he knows it was sheer luck.  And the fury in his writing is all about the injustice of that.

Shusaku Endo — Silence:  Martin Scorsese’s bleak film rendition freaked me out so much that I quit watching early on, then went to the novel, which – in a hard-earned epiphany — reveals the simple key to Christianity’s appeal, something a childhood raised in a Southern Baptist church, and decades of reflection on religion and philosophy, had somehow missed.

Sam Wasson – The Big Goodbye:  Covid/BLM/Election/Zoom, the other common thread this year was streaming movies, they say. We’ve done our share, and some of that has been re-watching the 1970s classics I grew up on.  This book, a blow-by-blow account of the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, taught me a lot about the work all those folks on the credits do, told a heart-rending story of Polanski’s tortured past, and opened up a Pandora’s box of classics I hadn’t watched before (check out Polanski’s Frantic, Ghost Writer, and Knife in the Water, whew!)

Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein:  This book won’t be published until 2021, but my best friend Paul let me read it in draft, and wow!  In the first chapter of this roller coaster picaresque, the brain of Jim from Huck Finn is transplanted into the body of Abraham Lincoln, the patched together monster then bolting for the Civil War South, and the hunt that follows turns up hilarious takes on characters from Southern history, literature and folklore, while nailing the lies therein.  I so hope Quentin Tarentino or the Cohen Bros. lay hands on this book!

Peter Wohllebon – The Hidden Life of Trees:  If anything has kept me sane this year, it’s been daily walks in the woods with our dog.  This book, read early in the pandemic, opened my eyes to the community life of a forest, changed how I see and understand the trees that shade these walks, left me strolling more reverently, with a new sense of wonder, along the way.

Okay, your turn – What have you been reading this year?

“By the Book” Self-Own

My friend and author Rosemary Rawlins asked me to share an anecdote or two for her book club, which I’ll be joining in December for a discussion of my novel The Coal Tower. Sent her this self-interview, which I agree is “contrived”. To say the least, but anyway:

What books are on your nightstand?

Oh gosh, this is embarrassing.  My nightstand groans with four stacks of books, arranged in order of priority, more or less.  I tend to read several books at the same time, dipping in and out as I go, seeking little linkages that pop up from time to time, which, by the way, drives my wife crazy – she’s a straight through to the end and on to the next style reader.  On the priority stack today we have:  Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas in America (actually begins pre-colonially in 1400s); I’m up to the 1980s and the Reagan Era now, so almost done; Jose Saramago’s Blindness, next up in my morbid pursuit of pandemic tales that launched back in April with a re-read of Camus’ The Plague; Lawrence Weschler’s Waves Passing in the Night, about the sound engineer Walter Murch’s oddball celestial theories, and three books of poetry, Carolyn Forche’s new In the Lateness of the World, Galway Kinnell’s The Past, and Jamie K. Reaser’s Conversations with Mary.  All of these feeding a notion in some poems I’m scribbling that seem to be about human perception in all its glory and feebleness; and Fever, 1793, a young adult tale by Laurie Halse Anderson, that I hope will help me learn how to tell a Jamestown story for teens that I’ve been fumbling with.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I’m there now, in our living room stretched out on the sofa, afternoon light slanting in at the windows so there’s no need for a lamp, dog napping on the floor beside me, not a phone beep to be heard.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

This answer seems to change every decade or so, as it probably does for most people.  In my youth, as an earnest Southern Baptist it was The New Testament and then that ecological bible Thoreau’s Walden.  In college Whitman’s Leaves of Grass knocked me sideways.  I fell hard for Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo in later years, but to answer you today, I’ve been writing a story that imagines Whitman and Thoreau swimming together at Walden Pond, and it’s those two guys and their masterpieces that have me swooning all over again.

Your novel is set in Charlottesville, Virginia, so might be considered in the line of Southern fiction.  Are there Southern writers you especially admire?

I’m old school on this, I’m afraid.  Faulkner’s top of the heap, then comes Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, Ellen Gilchrist, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Woodrell…. Writing The Coal Tower, I took a shot at reading the famous short stories by longtime UVA professor Peter Taylor, who wrote with such precision about matters of social class in dear old C’ville.  But his casual racism shocked me, and then it seemed to turn up in so many of the old lions I’d read:  Percy and Steinbeck and Hemingway, for instance.  But before I start to rant, ask me sometime about my years working restaurants in New Orleans, and encounters with Percy and dear Ms. Welty there.

Who is your favorite fictional hero?  And the best villain?

Jack Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassidy was, of course, a real person and by all accounts as supernatural as the various fictional versions that turn up in Kerouac’s road novels, but yes, him.  The God of the Old Testament, when you think about it, is the model for so many fictional villains, and frankly, hard to beat.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I love it when the writing gets caught up in itself, matches the pace of the events it tells, and squirts out a gripping truth or two so you have to put the book down for a minute.  All the writers mentioned above have done that to me at one time or another, creating these epiphanies on the page.  I have good friends who are mystery writers and SF writers, and I admire their work greatly. They too can squirt.  But those genres, otherwise, I don’t tend to go for.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Maybe no surprise, but I have a whole book cabinet devoted to nature writing, and I try to collect early editions of the books that knocked my socks off when I can afford them.  On that shelf a few oddities:  Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, Dr. Richard Rubens’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and a pretty thorough collection of vintage Marvel superhero comics.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

My dear friends who dazzle with their genius, yet struggle like so many artists to find the wide audience they deserve:  Terry Bisson, Liz Hand, Joseph Lanza, Katy Munger, Rosemary Rawlins, and Paul Witcover.  Among these, Rosemary’s new book, I mean wow.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

The only books in our house growing up were an old set of World Book Encyclopedias and their accompanying orange-bound Childcraft series.  But then came Dr. Seuss, Tom Swift, Jr., my first library card and the giant paper and ink proto-Google that was the Charlottesville public library. 

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Always the Cat in the Hat.  Have tried to live up to his example ever since – have a royally good time messing things up, if you must, but don’t forget to come back and straighten things out when you’re done.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I’m that sneaky dad who slips books onto his sons’ nightstands in hopes they might put down their game paddles for a minute.  Most recently, Ta Nehisi Coates’ bound letter to his son Between the World and Me.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

I don’t know if they still do this, but back in the day, at a certain age, every kid at Fork Union Baptist Church was given their own paperback King James Version Bible.  I still have mine.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’m trying to figure out what to do with Nabokov’s Lolita right now.  90 pages in, things getting pretty creepy, but boy does old Vladimir know how to lead you on, sneakily implicating you in what may be either a comedy or a horror story or both, and maybe that’s what’s so frustrating and intriguing about the whole thing?

What book would you recommend to the President?

To the impeached President, considering his notorious attention span, I highly recommend the aforementioned Cat in the Hat.  Especially those later pages where he and his minions Thing One (Ivanka?) and Thing Two (Jared?) clean up after themselves.  To the President-Elect, a fan of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, in which our hero bravely overcomes a monster ravaging the countryside, restoring peace and unity to the kingdom.

You have published fiction and poetry.  Do you prefer one or the other?

I started writing both around 9th grade and can’t seem to shake either.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

I’m useless at dinner parties.  I always end up wandering around outside, wishing I smoked and had that as an excuse, hoping no one misses me and comes looking.  But if three writers could join me on the stoop, just imagine Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, and I’d have to say Bruce Springsteen.  All of us, of course, our younger versions. I mean, if you’re going to wish!

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Do you mean right before they die?  Maybe this book bequeathed to me by the poet Sarah Knorr, who died of cancer last summer, the poet M. S. Merwin’s final collection Garden Time.  Every poem like a last sigh of gratitude and wonder and not a comma or period anywhere.

What do you plan to read next?

Well, when I get through this first pile, on the top of the nightstand’s second stack – Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.