“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” ~ Carson McCullers, from “Look Homeward, Americans”


“She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone.” ~ Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

Sunday afternoon, cloudy, 49 degrees.

Wednesday was the birthday of American novelist, playwright, and poet Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917-September 29, 1967). Granted, I came to McCullers late in the game, not reading my first book by her until grad school—Reflections in a Golden Eye, written in 1941 (go here to download an e copy of the novel). However, once I had read that book, I was hooked, reading almost everything that she had written in quick succession. When I was still teaching, I always included something by McCullers on my literature syllabi, my favorite being her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).

Most often, McCullers is classified as a Southern Gothic writer, in the same vein as Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams. Southern Gothic literature is so named because of its similarities to the Gothic genre, which arose in 18th century Britain. Key elements of Gothic literature include bleak, dark settings, and mysterious, sometimes supernatural plots filled with psychologically complex and damaged characters. Well-known examples of the genre include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Gothic literature continued to flourish in the 19th century, influencing the works of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), and Nathanial Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables, 1851), all of which incorporated the Gothic motifs of suspense and horror, as well as characters with traumatized psyches. Often central to the overarching atmosphere of these works was a large, foreboding house harboring a terrible secret (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights); the term Gothic actually derives from the architectural classification of late Medieval structures such as cathedrals that featured stone and glass incorporated into the arches and buttresses.

Elements of the Gothic tradition in literature continue today—the entire oeuvre of Stephen King or Anne Rice, for example—with sensational plots and characters steeped in mystery and the supernatural, with thematic spillover into movies and television shows featuring zombies, vampires, and werewolves.

“His own life seemed so solitary, a fragile column supporting nothing amidst the wreckage of the years.” Carson McCullers, from “The Sojourner”

While the roots of Southern Gothic literature stem from the Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic tends to focus less on the primary setting of singular creepy mansions and instead uses the concept of the sprawling Southern plantation or the small Southern town as the atmospheric backdrop. Much of Southern Gothic literature centers on the differences inherent in the mid 20th century South and the characters who reside there. For example, in Reflections, McCullers incubates her characters within the stultifying isolation of a military base in which characters self-mutilate and ultimately commit murder.

Southern Gothic first emerged as a sub genre in the work of William Faulkner in the 1920s, but it reached its peak in the period between the 1940s to the 1960s through the work of well-known authors such as McCullers, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee. I would be remiss if I did not mention the Southern Gothic masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), by  Tennessee Williams; in fact, it was Williams who convinced his friend McCullers to turn her 1946 novel Member of the Wedding into the 1950 play, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best play of the season.

Interestingly, many well-known Gothic novels and stories have been translated to movies and plays, with some having multiple adaptations over the years: McCullers’ Heart novel was adapted to film in 1968 and starred Alan Arkin and a young Sondra Locke. Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando starred in the 1967 film version of Reflections. Member was not only adapted into a play, but also into a film in both 1952 (garnering Julie Harris a best actress nomination) and 1997, as well as a TV adaptation in 1982.

“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

One key motif of both Gothic and Southern Gothic literature is the incorporation of the grotesque, which is defined in the literary sense as the ludicrous or abnormal, in other words, whatever or whoever deviates from traditional societal norms, especially as relates to the body and the many ways in which it can be exaggerated or distorted, a la the Frankenstein monster. McCullers was particularly skilled in incorporating the overarching Gothic idea of the grotesque into her characterizations: witness John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist of Heart, whose physical differences caused him such emotional pain and mental anguish. He moves through his life with an overarching sense of alienation that allows him no permanent place in this world, which in turn leads to his suicide.

McCullers creates within so many of her characters this sense of other as a deliberate mechanism for portraying the wretchedness of the human condition. Her  stories are populated by those set apart from the mainstream by race, sexuality, and deformity, and then she further isolates these characters through  complex themes such as bisexuality, impotency, bestiality, and murder. But perhaps the leitmotif that permeates her work more than any other is that of need: her characters’ need for love, for understanding, for companionship, for sex, for strength, for belonging. She creates these needs, but rarely offers the satisfaction of successfully achieving any of them.

I always thought that her characters in Heart are indeed both grotesque and sublime—creations that the reader can both love and fear because we fear what we do not know, whether it be a mute or an individual institutionalized for mental illness (Spiros). Singer was a masterpiece of contractions: He could not hear, but he loved music, or the idea of music. He could not speak but was named singer. Oddly, the person in the boarding house who is deemed the best listener is the deaf man. Overall, the book’s characters are all lone hunters, with each seemingly hunting something different yet at the same time, each hunting a way out of loneliness.

“What did he understand? Nothing. Where was he headed? Nowhere. What did he want? To know. What? A meaning. Why? A riddle.” ~ Carson McCullers, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers, Nyack, New York, 1947; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Anyway, not really sure how I ended up writing so much about Southern Gothic literature when I had originally just wanted to mention McCullers’ birthday;  I finally had to stop myself when I realized that I was going into a full-blown academic analysis of her, and the Gothic tradition, etc. . . . that, plus I began this post on Wednesday, so it was long overdue for completion. Truthfully, though, I miss writing research papers, which is why so many of my posts contain elements inherent to pedagogy.

Nevertheless, I never even touched on McCullers as a person, which is in large part why I have always been so fascinated with her, but that’s a whole other post’s worth of words, and then some. But truly, McCullers was brilliant, and like many brilliant people she was very troubled, so perhaps I’ll write about that and the bourbon some other time, but this is quite enough for today.

More later. Peace.


Music by The Dead South, “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company”

“We are right at the start, do you see. As though before everything. With a thousand and one dreams behind us and no act.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Notes on the Melody of Things” (Section I)

I began this post Sunday afternoon, and then my computer decided to act up again. All of the script errors are back, and now whenever I do a search, half of the results page is blank. I’ve scanned for malware, and the scan says that everything is fine, but obviously, everything is not fine. I am so weary—these recurring computer issues always seem to rear their ugly head precisely at the moment in which I have decided to post, that exact moment in which I am finally ready to sit here and just let the words pour forth.

The fates conspire against me.


Sunday afternoon, partly cloudy, 43 degrees.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Notes on the Melody of Things” in 1898, when he was only twenty-two years old, but the piece was not published in his lifetime. Many of the same ideas from “Notes” appeared in another essay, “The Value of theMonologue.” I have chosen to share just a few of my favorite passages, but you can find the full text here.

III. That occurs to me: when I observe: that we still always paint people against a gold background, like the Italian Primitives. People stand before something indefinite—sometimes gold, sometimes gray. Sometimes they stand in the light, and often with an unfathomable darkness behind them.

XVI. Whether it be the singing of a lamp or the voice of a storm, whether it be the breath of an evening or the groan of the ocean — whatever surrounds you, a broad melody always wakes behind you, woven out of a thousand voices, where there is room for your own solo only here and there. To know when you need to join in: that is the secret of your solitude: just as the art of true interactions with others is to let yourself fall away from high words into a single common melody.

XX. In other cases, when there is no difficult, heavy pain to make people equally silent, one of them hears more of the powerful melody of the background, the other hears less. Many no longer hear it at all. They are like trees that have forgotten their roots and now think that the rustling of their branches is their power and their life. Many people don’t have time to hear it. They are impatient with every hour enveloping them. These poor, homeless people have lost the meaning of existence. They strike the keyboard of their days and play the same, monotonous, lost note over and over again.

XXI. If, then, we want to be initiates of life, we must keep two things in mind:

First, the great melody, in which things and scents, feelings and pasts, twilights and desires, all play their parts; —

and second: the individual voices which augment and complete this full chorus.

Today is the birthday of novelist and playwright Frances Hodgson Burnett (November 24, 1849 – October 29, 1924), author of one of the first books that I chose to read as a child, The Secret Garden (1911). I still have a very clear memory of the local library’s children’s section, the exact location of the stacks I used to spend countless hours perusing in search of books to read.

I also read her other well-known book The Little Princess (1905), which was turned into a movie with child actor Shirley Temple, but I much preferred a lesser known book The Lost Prince (1915). Even as a child, I had a propensity for finding an author and dedicating myself to reading as much of that author’s oeuvre as I could get my hands on. When you are an only child, books can be a reliable bulwark against loneliness, as they were for me.

More later. Peace.


Music by Ben Cocks, “So Cold”

“. . . I’m here to tell you, that you should still be concerned with our current course, and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.” ~ President Barack Obama, speech at U. of Illinois (September 7, 2018)

Image result for obama speech at university of illinois


“The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides, is a government by the organized, energized and inclusive many. That’s what this moment’s about. That has to be the answer.” ~ President Barack Obama, speech at U. of Illinois (September 7, 2018)

Sunday afternoon, sunny and lovely, 69 degrees.

I know that I’m on a political bent as of late, but how can I not be? So much is happening so fast that it’s hard to keep all of it straight. It’s no secret that I’m an ardent liberal, but more than that, I’m a patriot. I believe in this country, and I believe in the Constitution. And the current state of affairs is breaking my heart and making my blood pressure go crazy, so I try to ameliorate the effects a bit by writing about them or by sharing some of the more significant items such as what I’m featuring today.

Former President Barack Obama addressed an audience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September 2018, and although this speech was delivered over a year ago, I believe that his message is particularly important and relevant in these dark days of our republic. I’m not going to put the entire transcript here because it’s always better to hear Obama’s words as opposed to reading them—he remains a powerful orator, capable of grabbing and holding an audience with his words and cadence. It’s a striking contrast to the bluster and fumble of 45.

I have pulled out just a few of the more relevant snippets:

The point Washington made, the point that is essential to American democracy is that in a government of and by and for the people there should be no permanent ruling class. There are only citizens, who through their elected and temporary representatives determine our course and determine our character.

More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged, who want to keep us divided, and keep us angry and keep us cynical, because it helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments.

It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.

It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories that we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people.

It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies — not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers.

You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert, this is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hardworking people who are accountable and who have America’s best interest at heart.

If you are tired of politicians who are all for nothing but “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. You’ve got to do what the Parkland kids are doing. Some of them have not eligible to vote yet. They’re out there working to change minds and registering people. They’re not giving up until we have a Congress that sees your lives more important as a campaign check from the NRA. You’ve got to vote!


“. . . now, at this moment, in this soft green twilight, this soft green Sunday evening, when the heart of the world seemed to lie beating in the palm of his hand, he sat in that huge house upstairs terrified that he would never live.” ~ Andrew Holleran, from Dancer from the Dance

Sunday Afternoon by amir appel (FCC)

“Days pass here, weeks slip away,
and even when it isn’t,
it seems to be Sunday,
irreal, subdued, the queer, slowed-down
feeling of late afternoon
spreading through the hours
of an entire day.” ~ Elizabeth Spires, from “Letter from Swan’s Island”

Sunday afternoon, sunny, warmer, 85 degrees.

Out of sorts today. I was awakened before 6 by one of the dogs, and then for the next two hours, there seemed to be an ongoing parade of dogs and a cat going in and out the front door. Most days, I open the front door early in the morning to let in the cool air, but lately I haven’t been doing so because of the swarms of flies; hence, I have to let the dogs out and in and out and in and . . .

Corey rolled over around 7 and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was letting the dogs out over and over. He rolled over and went back to sleep, and I continued to watch YouTube videos, all while wishing for more sleep, which I finally got sometime around 8.

What a strange morning. Anyway, my timing is completely off today.


Today’s birthdays of note:

  • Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), king of England
  • Patsy Cline (1933-1963), country singer born in Winchester, Virginia
  • Bernie Sanders (1941), U.S. politician
  • Aimee Mann (1960), musician born in Richmond, Virginia
  • Martin Freeman (1971), English actor (The Hobbit, Sherlock)
  • P!nk (1979), singer

So I thought that I’d post songs by these three incredible female vocalists. Enjoy.


Music by Patsy Cline, “I Fall to Pieces”

Music by Aimee Mann, “Drive”

 

Music by P!nk, featuring Chris Stapleton, “Love Me Anyway”

“Nothing is free. Everything has to be paid for. For every profit in one thing, payment in some other thing. For every life, a death. Even your music, of which we have heard so much, that had to be paid for. Your wife was the payment for your music. Hell is now satisfied.” ~ Ted Hughes, from Orpheus

Ted Hughes on the first day of trout fishing season in April 1986. Nick Rogers-REX/Courtesy of Harper

“Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil” ~ Ted Hughes, from “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark”

Sunday afternoon, partly cloudy and quite warm, 90 degrees.

Yesterday was the birthday of notable British poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930-October 28, 1998).

I know that I said I would continue the NRA post today, but I just can’t. I need a break. I worked on that frigging post for over eight hours, and my body hasn’t recovered. When I get into intense writing mode, I don’t pay attention to my posture, and I tend to sit with all of my muscles tensed. Of course, the result is that I pay for it afterwards. Today my shoulders are a bundle of knots, as is my lower back, which negates any relief I may have gotten from the trigger point injections.

I’m still awaiting a prior authorization on my Robaxin (muscle relaxer), which is what I take during the day, every day. I really need that. Well, that, or a masseuse. Don’t have either at the moment.

Corey and I both got a lot done yesterday: I wrote a thoroughly researched article, and he finished the fence on the back pasture for the goats. Hoorah, hoorah.

Sylviai Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956

Anyway, back to Ted Hughes, who some of you may know as the husband of the poet Sylvia Plath; their marriage and her suicide negatively colored his reputation as a writer until his death, but he was incredibly talented in his own right. Unfortunately for Hughes, the woman for whom he left Plath, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their 4-year-old daughter Shura after Plath’s death. Hughes spent the remainder of his life writing and farming with his second wife, Carol Orchard.

If you want to know more about Hughes and Plath, the 2008 book The Letters of Ted Hughes is a great read, as is his 1998 book Birthday Letters. I own the latter but not the former; it’s on my wish list. I enjoy reading the correspondence of writers as the majority of them lay themselves bare in notes and letters. It always strikes me as being much more immediate than a biography.

You can find a good biography here on the Poetry Foundation site. The Paris Review interviewed  Hughes for its “Art of Poetry Series” (No. 71) in 1995. You can find the article here. In the following quote Hughes discusses how location affected his writing, something I am always pondering myself:

Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it.

. . . When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place.

I chose “A Woman Unconscious,” the poem below, because once again, its content seems so timely, especially in light of the recent nuclear missile explosion in Russia

More later. Peace.


A Woman Unconscious

Russia and America circle each other;
Threats nudge an act that were without doubt
A melting of the mould in the mother,
Stones melting about the root.The quick of the earth burned out:
The toil of all our ages a loss
With leaf and insect.  Yet flitting thought
(Not to be thought ridiculous)Shies from the world-cancelling black
Of its playing shadow: it has learned
That there’s no trusting (trusting to luck)
Dates when the world’s due to be burned;

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.

And though bomb be matched against bomb,
Though all mankind wince out and nothing endure —
Earth gone in an instant flare —
Did a lesser death come

Onto the white hospital bed
Where one, numb beyond her last of sense,
Closed her eyes on the world’s evidence
And into pillows sunk her head.


Music by You + Me, “Love Gone Wrong”

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” ~ Toni Morrison, from Song of Solomon

My favorite image of Toni Morrison (Bettmann/Getty Image)

“And I am all the things I have ever loved: scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in silent water, dream books and number playing. I am the sound of my own voice singing . . . I am not complete here; there is much more, but there is no more time and no more space . . . and I have journeys to take, ships to name, and crews.” ~ Toni Morrison, from the jacket cover of The Black Book

Sunday afternoon, sunny, warmer, 86 degrees.

We recently lost an icon in the literary sphere: Toni Morrison (born Chloe Anthony Wofford February 18, 1931-August 5, 2019). Novelist, essayist, editor and professor emirutus at Princeton University, Morrison (88), was the only African American writer and one of the few women to have received the Nobel prize for literature (1993). Among her other awards were the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1977.

The Guardian‘s obituary offers a comprehensive look at her incredible oeuvre, and The Boston Herald ran an op ed by Joyce Ferriabough Bolling on August 11 that focuses more on Morrison’s incomparable literary abilities: “The quiet power of her prose was like a tsunami sweeping you to other dimensions — and sometimes you never saw it coming.”

Newsweek published an article that includes some of the renowned author’s best quotes. Here is a selection from her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, powerful words that are incredibly significant still today:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

Barack Obama presents Toni Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012

. . . Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.

More later. Peace.


Remembering Toni Morrison (PBS NewsHour):

“Isn’t it terrible how dry you can be . . . I can’t seem to write a single paragraph which interests me. It’s like looking for something in the dark, there’s such a huge amount of chance in writing.” ~ Robert Phelps, from a letter to James Salter (March 1, 1969-70)

Statue of Liberty by Jeff Nesanelis (FCC)

Sunday afternoon, cloudy, not quite as hot, 86 degrees (feels like 93)

We’re supposed to get rain. We need it. Last night was quite a light show of lightning in the distance, but the rain never got here. Corey parked my car where it can be rained on because it’s so dirty. I never used to let my vehicles get this dirty.

I thought that I’d share part of an interview with writer Catherine Chung from the June 18 “Ten Questions” feature in Poets & Writers. I like this particular feature as I find it interesting to read what writers have to say about their craft. P&W is a wonderful publication, one that I really should take better advantage of, but as with most things, I do not.

Oh well . . . Know thyself, as they say.

Here are Chung’s answers to two of the questions asked:

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
My mind! My mind is the biggest challenge in everything I do. I write to try to set myself free, and then find myself snagged on my own limitations. It’s maddening and absurd and so, so humbling. With this book, it was a tie between trying to learn the math I was writing about—which I should have seen coming—and having to confront certain habits of mind I didn’t even know I had. I found myself constantly reining my narrator in, even though I meant for her to be fierce and brilliant and strong. She’s a braver person than me, and I had to really fight my impulse to hold her back, to let her barrel ahead with her own convictions and decisions, despite my own hesitations and fears.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write where I can, when I can. I’ve written in bathtubs of hotel rooms so as not to wake my companions, I’ve written on napkins in restaurants, I’ve written on my phone on the train, sitting under a tree or on a rock, and on my own arm in a pinch. I’ve walked down streets repeating lines to myself when I’ve been caught without a pen or my phone. I’ve also written on my laptop or in a notebook at cafes and in libraries or in bed or at my dining table. As to how often I write, it depends on childcare, what I’m working on, on deadlines, on life!

Here is a link to the list of P&W “Ten Questions” features.

P.S. Thought I’d post the beautiful sonnet by Emma Lazarus to which I alluded in yesterday’s post, “The New Colossus,” which is mounted on a plaque on the pedestal below the Statue of Liberty. You know, the universal symbol of freedom, that woman who greets immigrants to a better life here in the U.S.


Music by Mumford & Sons, “White Blank Page”


The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

~ Emma Lazarus