Looking forward to speaking at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference offsite panel, “Figuring out How to Be Human: How Literature Helps.” Thursday, March 5, 6-9 pm, Our Lady of the Lake University, 411 SW 24th St, Main Building 311, San Antonio, TX 78207. https://www.ollusa.edu/
Here is the event description:
Panel discussion followed by an open mic. Discussion on how to keep the good aspects of ‘great books’ and the literary canon (community building, mindful cultural conversations on how to exist wisely/compassionately) while expanding the canon to reflect the insights of many more cultural groups. Speakers include a Victorian lit expert, an educator who taught Western classics in China while reading their classic works, an educator on Chicano/Indigenous/queer lit, a writer/activist with schizophrenia, and an author who has extensively researched female philosophers. Organized by Cristina Deptula, Synchronized Chaos Magazine, http://synchchaos.com/
What an interesting and compelling topic. As the “Victorian lit” expert, I will discuss the continuing relevance of George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Trollope, and other historical authors in helping us understand our relationships to society and how to be human.
Dante’s Inferno in Reverse describes my descent into a different Hell. My cold Inferno included separation from my wife, persistent gray skies, and intermittent rain and snow. A rainforest climate with no trees or warmth, thousands of miles north of the tropics.
Like Dante I went willingly, though I had no choice. After months of cautious elation and uncertainty when the Seabee bureaucrats in Washington cancelled my orders to Da Nang, Vietnam, I abruptly received new orders. No time to spare, a flight the next morning to Adak, Alaska.
Given such short notice, I failed to return my copy of Dante’s Inferno to the Ventura Community College Library. It seems fitting that Dante shared my exile to Adak. For political reasons, the poet himself was exiled from the republic of Florence in the early fourteenth century.
The book became a symbol for all I endured in those years. Every time I felt a rash of guilt for keeping the book and confining Dante to my barracks locker, I reminded myself of everything the government stole from me. A few years of my life for starters. I fanned a bad attitude and anger enough to fight my way back to the surface. A man performs his duty to his country the best way he can.
Yet Another Inferno
After boot camp, my wife and I had scraped together our meager savings and drove out to California, my next Navy assignment. The Seabees had this odd rule that they would not ship you to Vietnam until you had served six months in the states. To use up the time they sent junior Seabees out on make-work jobs, like surveying the rattlesnake infested desert for buildings they never intended to build. They broke the monotony for one week of military training, chasing Marines around the parched hills of Camp Pendelton. They said the maneuver prepared us for Vietnam.
Other than the heat, the desert hardly resembled a tropical jungle unless you had premonitions of strip logging and global warming. Or Dante’s vision of Hell. The evenings at least felt like California. During the weeks I was not confined to military training, I basked in the ocean breeze near our cheap apartment. The air carried a balsam scent tinged with brine. I waited patiently for my orders to Vietnam, hoping the Navy might lose them somewhere in the Pentagon.
All this time I wished I was back in college. I had no financial choice but to drop out and confront the draft, but I missed the immersion in heady ideas and culture. I preached Bob Dylan and Noah Chomsky, and I drank deeply of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. Even if my education came more from enlightened students and scholars than my classes, I was the perfect foil for an opportunistic salesman.
When he appeared at our apartment door with his friendly manner, my first thought was to shut him out like a Jehovah’s Witness. But he kept talking and we had nothing better to do than listen. We had no TV, just the same stack of scratched records cycling on the portable stereo. Quickly grokking our situation and my desire to get back to college, he unfolded a color brochure with a historical map of culture emanating from the Greek epicenter. A famous author marked each node.
Our unfurnished living room became an interactive seminar, a literary salon. We shared our weed and jasmine tea while he talked about Plato and Aristotle as if they were personal friends. Then doing me a favor to save my life, he pitched a lifetime of learning via a set of Great Books, including Dante and everyone else. He left with a deposit against my next paycheck.
By the time the cartons of Great Books arrived two days later I had realized my mistake. Even if I read the whole set as the salesman assured me I would, I had no way to transport the heavy boxes. Dante carried nothing into Hell and I was only allowed a sea bag. Fortunately, the legal officer at the base took great joy in cancelling the sale. The Navy even shipped the books back and told me to keep the bookcase.
Surviving the Inferno
A few weeks later I signed up for a philosophy course at Ventura Community College and checked out the Dante volume from the library. Although I happily took advantage of free tuition for servicemen, I only attended two classes before my fateful flight north.
For now I’ll forgo describing more of my tour on Adak, Dante’s Inferno in Reverse, and the circles of Hell other than the ones I’ve sketched already. I endured the crowded barracks and eventually achieved my redeeming plane ticket home.
Despite the weather and separation from family and most other healthy pursuits, my year on Adak wasn’t all bad. I made some lifelong friends and I sometimes consider returning there for the unique tundra-cloaked volcanos, bald eagles, dolly varden trout, otters, and salmon. Never again as a Seabee, of course, not that it’s possible with the Navy base decommissioned and abandoned.
I eventually read Dante’s Inferno, a tough path but rewarding. His allegorical vision resonates with the dark passages of my life and our country’s history during the Vietnam war years. Ever timely, his images still incite metaphors of our current politics and environmental challenges. Most nights the network news sounds like a Divine Comedy, though not so divine.
A print of Domenico di Michelino’s painting of Dante and the Divine Comedy from the Florence Duomo graces my mouse pad. But I confess I never returned the book. My current and future wife, the career librarian, insists that I do, even though the Ventura Community College Library could build another wing with my accumulated fines. I’ll send the book back anonymous.
Themes of separation and war are prevalent in my stories and poems, including The Poet’s Garage. My upcoming novel Lucky Ride contains several scenes set on Adak.
Saving Shelley’s skylark was a good deed I never imagined. As a Boy Scout I was more likely to feed a stray puppy or help someone cross a street, assuming I wasn’t too distracted by the latest Beach Boys release on my transistor radio.
Coming from a family of limited means there was only one way to escape the summer’s baked mud and boredom for an idyllic two weeks at Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. I could meet the high cost of $35 by collecting newspapers. The Boy Scout paper drive began in the Fall and continued until the payment deadline. One dollar for each foot of paper. So, if I gathered a 35-foot stack of paper, I could go to camp.
Of course, the camping experience wasn’t always idyllic, like thinking I’d drown during my swimming test. Or the afternoon I fell into a stream trying to cross hand over hand on a rope. Or the night of “wilderness” camping when mosquitoes found every seam in my canvas tent and torn sleeping bag. The next morning I resembled a Neanderthal, my face covered in welts and a thick swollen brow. One of my friends snapped a Polaroid for my parents.
Both of my parents were excellent swimmers. I sunk like a puppy in a sack, fighting for breath, never getting the hang of breathing when swimming, as if my body rejected the concept. I love being on the water, not in it.
But a skylark has no need to swim, or so I assumed. Maybe my attraction to creatures of the land and air relates to my swimming failures, even if the smaller flyers wanted my blood. Fortunately, Shelley’s skylark was easy to catch, roosting in a pile of newspapers.
My role as the local paper boy gave me an edge in the paper drive competition among Boy Scouts. I told my Minneapolis Tribune customers not to discard their newspapers. I’d occasionally enlist my father to follow in his car while I canvased the neighborhood and filled the Chevy’s trunk.
During one of my collection passes a lady directed me down into her basement where I found a yellowed stack of newspapers. Inserted between the news and sports sections were several old books, which gave me pause. She told me to take them.
Once I got them home I called the scoutmaster. Yes, books counted and now I had several inches of books to add to my growing footage. But I hoped he would say no. How could anyone throw away books? They seemed sacred like the Bibles and hymnals in church or the volumes I checked out from the bookmobile.
I read the books to decide their fate, or at least I skimmed them. Two were social studies texts, too much like the ones I labored over in school, along with books on typing and stenography. Those could go. But I set aside an old WWI history book with a broken spine and colored plates, a Shakespeare collection, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poetry. The Shakespeare covers hung by threads and the Palgrave boards were missing. I turned the pages carefully like a monk reading holy manuscripts.
The images in the WWI book drew me first. But they seemed heroically upbeat compared to what I already knew about the Great War. Horses drew field cannons mounted on wooden spoke-wheeled carriages among confident men marching in colorful clean uniforms shining with polished buttons and medals. Rifles flashed with chrome fittings. Officers wore swords and bushy moustaches.
Some units of the Turkish Army were particularly exotic with their blossoming pants, tunics, and fezzes. I imagined their fine cloth caked with mud in the trenches I saw in my encyclopedia. I later realized the WWI book was printed in 1914 during the mobilization, before the horrors of mechanized killing and no man’s land. Any soldiers surviving the initial battles would have gladly traded their gaudy uniforms for khaki colors and dull metal helmets.
The inside covers of the Shakespeare volume were inscribed by the student owner and many of his friends. But I found no marks on the inside pages. I had been introduced to Shakespeare through his plays, of course, but at that point in my youth I thought reading him was something like reading the Bible. You only did so when coerced.
Palgrave’s Treasury had no colored plates and there were many pages crowded with difficult language as daunting as Shakespeare. The short lines and stanzas of “To a Skylark” caught me as I flipped through the book. I kept going back to the poem. Something about the skylark as bird and more awakened my first epiphany about the power of metaphor. Shelley’s descriptive words pulled me closer.
Spirit, cloud of fire, emblem of joy, star of Heaven, the skylark soars through images in the poem until it disappears and its song fades. But the poets still feels its presence, bringing him to the edge of human perception, the inexpressible. I later learned how poetry and art carry our consciousness to something new and unexpected, embodying a sense of creation. “Dreaming beyond death,” as the poet describes, immortal.
The last lines of each stanza ring most memorable, beginning with “profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” a perfect description of a bird in flight. At the end of the poem, after calling on the skylark to teach him its poetic song, the author declares, “The world should listen then, as I am listening now!” These resonant lines and their simple rhythm have echoed through the ears and pens of generations of readers and poets, including me.
The more I read about Percy Bysshe Shelley the more he suited me as a role model. Politically radical in addition to his literary talent, he shared his politics, atheism, and views on sexual liberation with his friends, including John Keats, Lord Byron, and particularly his wife Mary Shelly. Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist philosopher, Mary Shelley was a famous author and philosopher in her own right. Her gothic novel Frankenstein is a classic, of course, but modern scholars have recently called attention to her many other novels.
Two years ago on a trip to Rome we made a pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House, a museum to the Romantic poets, next to the Spanish Steps. The house preserves the bed where Keats died and walls of period artwork, publications, and manuscripts. Not long after Keats succumbed to tuberculosis, Shelley died in a tragic accident while sailing his boat. I like to think Shelley and I share a love of boats and an aversion to swimming, but I am sure he was a better swimmer. Visiting the small museum felt more spiritual to me than St. Peter’s and the other the historic cathedrals in Rome. I bought a souvenir tee shirt.
I continue to collect newspapers but only for recycling, and I retain the old books I salvaged from my Boy Scout paper drive. Many Point Scout Camp still exists. I’ve forgotten most of my camping adventures and suppressed my swimming failures, but I’ll always revere Shelley’s skylark. On my evening walks with Pearl, our goofy golden retriever, I often sense the skylark’s immortal presence and recall saving Shelley’s skylark. I wonder which one of us saved the other.
I first encountered poet Carl Sandburg and “Chicago” when I was ten years old. One of my earliest poet-heroes, Sandburg came to suburban Minneapolis to dedicate a junior high school named in his honor. My mother, awed by Sandburg’s fame, cautioned me not to remove my shoes and play with my socks during the ceremony, one of my bad habits in those days.
Reading “Chicago” and Feeling Minneapolis
In preparation for the big event, our fifth-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary primed us with his poems, and “Chicago” remains one of my favorites. His description of a rough, confident, proud city and its people, “City of Big Shoulders,” applies as well to Minneapolis, my hometown.
In many ways, Minneapolis was a smaller reflection of Chicago, a satellite in the Chicago solar system. Before the Twins moved to town, we followed the Cubs and White Sox. Before we had the Vikings, we cheered the Bears. Our industry flexed as muscular and our tastes as hearty. Even in the arts Minneapolis echoed Chicago with a world class symphony and the Guthrie Theater. Minneapolis and her twin city St. Paul didn’t merely mirror Chicago, they wanted to be better.
A few years after Sandburg’s visit, our class visited the Guthrie during its first-year production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The bard’s difficult language came alive with vivid emotion, another formative literary experience. But Sandburg’s poem made me proud to be a working-class sprout. I imagined myself one of Sandburg’s Youth: stormy, husky, brawling, and sweaty. Although most of my poetic growth came outside the classroom, this was one poem I ate and digested.
Chicago by Rail
Another resonant lesson was our sixth-grade class trip, which felt like it was inspired by Carl Sandburg and “Chicago.” One evening we boarded the Great Northern railroad in Minneapolis for a visit to the Chicago Natural History museum, then back to Chicago’s Union Station and the ride home. Although the teachers droned about the coal mine and dinosaur bones in the museum, which were cool enough, we students focused on trying to evade our chaperones and make out during the long nights on the train. My fledgling romantic failures hardly lessened my awe at seeing the massive buildings along the rails of Sandburg’s Chicago, freight handler to the nation.
The Poet Speaks to Students
His dedication speech didn’t include a poetry reading as our teacher expected, but he played guitar, sang folk songs, told jokes, and left us with advice for our future lives, which I have long forgotten. His white hair was parted at the top of his head, unlike any of our fathers, and he had large freckles on his cheeks. He spoke more to the children than the parents, and I was part of a small delegation selected to meet him closeup after the event. He was kind and gracious, inspirational and funny. If this was what a poet was like, I wanted in. At ten I already knew I needed an alternate career from major league baseball.
I later attended Carl Sandburg Junior High, and the school still exists, though it was closed for a while. Lincoln Elementary has been closed for several years. Here’s a story recalling the Sandburg dedication: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2009/09/06/sandburg.