Date Archives February 2016

Killing the Last Chicken in the Yard

moonpeelersDedicated to we few, we crazy few, we band of poets

For the first five years of the 1970s I was an inhabitant of two worlds: suburban Mountain Brook, Alabama (one of the richest cities per capita in the country) and Southside, in downtown Birmingham, the “arty” part of town where there were record stores and quaint restaurants and what looked like hippies. I was engaged in both worlds.
I lived in Mountain Brook in a nice house and had two children in the school system. I was on the board of the Friends of the Library (I did their newsletter), attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (I did their newsletter also) and was in a garden club that I must admit I never attended. I had friends in both worlds but they didn’t know each other and probably didn’t want to. There were two exceptions to this rule. One was a man somewhat younger than I who came from Mountain Brook but now lived in Southside and aspired to be a writer. He had the look of a European ascetic philosopher, rail thin and with a beard and wire rimmed spectacles. The other exception was a man from a privileged background who lived in the most exclusive neighborhood in Birmingham in a great big mansion that was so vast it had secret passages but who spent most of his time in a little store he rented in Southside, crouched in the back trying to write something important. He had published a poem in a national magazine, Evergreen Review, (notorious for publishing obscene and erotic literature) and had come to expect a lot from himself. He had a neon sign made in the shape of his distinctive signature hanging out in front of his office. After he died a bar bought the sign and used it for their sign.
Although I was a painter and did a good business in portraits, I had a passion to be a writer, specifically a poet. I had been reading and loving poetry all my life and had heard its rhythms in my thoughts and in my dreams. Not knowing what I was doing, not having even an inkling of the door I was opening and what might be waiting on the other side, I enrolled in a writing class at UAB and began writing poems like my brain was on fire. I had a scorched earth policy as to subject matter and I took no prisoners. When I read my poems aloud in class I could literally see jaws drop.
The teacher of the class was Bobbie Gafford, a well-known writer and poet, and there were some other excellent writers in the class. We met at night and as time went by and we became comfortable with each other, us writers sat on the classroom-grade carpet and leaned against the wall with our legs stretched out, ankles crossed, relaxed. We felt free to be outrageous. We were merciless in our criticism. One of the students read a story one time that was so bad I had to go out in the hall and lie on the floor. Sometimes the work was so good I felt grateful just to be present at the reading of it. Both my friend with the beard and the man from the mansion were also in the “class”.
About mid-year, Bobbie asked me and two other students, Marilyn Michael and Mary Louise Moss, who was black, to join her in compiling a book of our work. We weeded through the haphazard notebooks and stray slips of paper holding our best poems – all of us were disorganized – and combined them into a book called The Moonpeelers after a poem by Marilyn. Another friend named Becky did the cover and it was stunning. The whole book was stunning. Still is.
Being a poet – even a beginner like I was – is like your worst nightmare – the one where you dream you are out in public naked and can’t remember how to get home. You go way out on a limb and lo! it breaks and you write about it as you fall. You land and it hurts and you write about how bad it feels. I came to understand that by giving myself up to such a dangerous art I was arriving at the place where it would be me against the ordinary life. I would be inviting vulnerability, asking life to bring it on! I began to feel like a skirmisher, leading the way into battle, way out front, devil-may-care. Soon poetry became an exoskeleton that took over my very being, and the other me – the practical person who cooked and cleaned and drove children to school – was totally eclipsed. I wrote on everything, every moment I could. Everybody in my life became a character in my living drama. Poets are so anxious to find truth they are willing to jump into fires and off bridges. Being a poet was the most dangerous thing I have ever done. Painting was like having a tea party compared to writing a poem. Ask Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas. To be a poet you have to be willing to kill the last chicken in the yard and write about how it feels to have nothing.
One day my bearded friend and I were sitting out on the Southside circle on the curb, our feet in the street. We often sat out there and talked poetry. I remember I was wearing hip-hugger blue jeans and these lace-up boots I fancied. I told him that I was getting a divorce. He asked me what I intended to do then. I said I intended to paint and write poetry. He refrained from pointing out that I was clueless. He said that he wanted to sell his store and study for a profession where he could counsel people who were suffering. He had a big heart and I figured he would find a way. He did.
One thing my bearded friend did was sponsor poetry readings. The Moon Peelers had just been published and he asked me to do a reading with him in the back yard of an old house in Southside. He sent out invitations and we had a nice crowd sitting on a very green lawn in white wooden chairs. One of the most important things about standing up and reading your own poetry to people is: What do I wear? For just this occasion I had bought a white organdy dress, button up the front, floor length, three-quarter length sleeves with ruffles, really old and fragile, and with a few little holes and rust stains. I had bought it from a second-hand shop near my studio, but I think the dress was more like fifth-hand. It was perfect. I decided not to wear shoes since I didn’t have any that went with the dress. I was not the least bit self-conscious nor did I consider myself a phony or a poser. I was living at the command of the White Goddess and she didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought anyway. Poetry does something real to your brain that takes all that away, all that caring. You feel like a truth-teller and that nothing else matters. I was happy with the reading.
Not long after that I was divorced. I went to an attorney who was recommended to me by friends. His office was full of art, some of it by people I showed with in galleries. He was a very well-mannered gentleman and I liked talking to him. When I was leaving he told me he had a copy of The Moon Peelers and how much he liked it. He told me that he had had a party recently and that one of his guests, a woman, had taken my book to read and that he had later found her in the bathroom sitting on the floor, crying. She told him that she identified with me. Of COURSE she was crying. She said she wanted to be free like that.
The thing is, people think poets are “free” because they write about the compelling parts of life – about mystery and soul – rather than the mundane. But poets are NOT free. They are imprisoned by the words that will not leave them alone. That’s why they drink and die young. That’s why- eventually – I slipped its surly bonds.

Twenty years later I joined a group at my Episcopal Church, a class that studied theology in a four-year program devised by the School of Theology at Sewanee. This was in 1996 and I was still in the group in 2013. But that first day, one of the members – a young woman who was about to have her third child – came up to me and introduced herself. Her father, she said, had been my lawyer when I divorced my first husband. She remembered that he had talked about me in such a way that she had carried around a mental picture of me: I had come to his office in paint-covered bluejeans and I was bare-footed. I didn’t remember that. What I DO remember is that when my divorce came through I had to go to his office to get the papers. It had been an easy divorce since, true to my vision of myself as “the poor poet”, I had asked for nothing. When I left I remember jumping up in the air and clicking my heels together like they do in movies – so I was wearing shoes that day. Probably the lace-up boots I fancied so. I then entered la-la land and stayed there until a sensible man found me.

Footnote: February 12, 2016: I re-read The Moonpeelers last night for the first time in decades. I was ruthless in those poems. I have never ever thought of myself that way, but I sure enough did it. I guess I am sorry since they are hurtful words, but in many ways I view the person that wrote those poems as someone else, who, like Persia, is ancient, going by another name.

The Mattress Show

DSC_0018 Some years ago I had a studio in the old Cobb Lane building on Southside in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, up on the third floor. I had been there for two years and would have stayed longer but one day I came up all those stairs and opened the door to my studio and there was a rat in there as big as a cat. He bounded across the floor like he was coming to greet me. I left (really??) and stayed away for a while, then gathered some friends to help me move. There was an empty space about a block away in another old place, this one in the historic two-story building with the rounded facade right there at Five Points, the crossroads of the then art world. It was a small room but it would do. There was a free clinic right next to me down the hall for all the neighborhood hippies who got in trouble with drugs but I didn’t think that would bother me – until I had to ask them not to sleep on my floor and to respect my privacy when I was working and on and on and it was like being invaded by the living dead at some point so I knew I had to move again. It was about this time I met Ross Kellerman and we became partners in art.

I had only known Ross by reputation before then. She was a painter and sculptor and was working loudly. Everyone thought she would be famous. There was talk of the Whitney Biennial. Ross was about five feet tall and weighed maybe eighty pounds. Everything about her was in proportion: small hands and feet, small features. No hips. I liked the way she painted – big oils with people and stars and words, lots of motion and color. There was a particular painting of hers I liked a lot – it had the Pope in it but he had a swastika on his mitre and there was this big patch of blood on the ground in front of him. I eventually bought it because she needed the money to buy coal to heat this miserable house she lived in. Ross looked like a child but she was tough and resilient. I wanted to be tough and resilient, too, but for me it was more of a performance.
Ross and I wanted to be real artists, not the “over the sofa painting” type. Both of us thought that art should be provocative. Art in the early ‘70s was wild and unpredictable – 1970 was the year of “Spiral Jetty” – and we considered ourselves part of that world even though we were in what can only be described as a backwater. In pursuit of our goal of announcing ourselves to that greater world, Ross and I rented a loft in downtown Birmingham – my third studio in as many weeks. It was on a corner. There was a seedy bar underneath us. The loft had two huge rooms with big windows that we could open. The ceilings were of pressed tin, very ornate, like the building had been something important a long time ago. We envisioned staging a big show and knocking people down with our avant guardedness. We hauled all our easels and paints and brushes and turpentine and rags and canvases and sculpturing tools and a big table up the narrow stairs to our new studio and set to work. We worked a lot during the day and then Ross went to work and I went home to my children and my real life.
Ross worked in the Cadillac Cafe on Southside. She was a good waitress and her pockets were always full of bills when I picked her up mornings. Sometimes she did not come out when I honked and I had to hike up the stone walkway to the front door and bang on it. She lived in a commune everyone called “Kudzu Castle”, a very crumbly old house with many rooms, all of them in bad shape. There was sometimes a couple sleeping on the thing that passed for a couch in the living room. I had to pass by them as I went to the back of the house to locate Ross. The couple was usually displaying way too much affection for each other. I remember a girl who lived there who had many piercings in her nose – and this was in 1973, before piercings were hot. I would not like to have been in the line of fire when that girl sneezed.
I would usually find Ross in the kitchen. She ate what she had determined was a healthy diet: lots of yogurt and fibery looking things and brewer’s yeast that smelled bad. The kitchen was disgusting as were the kitchens in every commune I ever saw. No one ever really cleaned them. The roach population of the Castle’s kitchen was extraordinary. One time Ross called a pest control company and got them to agree to a one-time-only roach kill – since that was all she could afford and no one else in the commune would contribute. I was there the morning the bug man arrived, waiting for Ross to finish her loathsome breakfast. We stood in the hall until he finished, then we went in and watched the roaches crawl out of every crevice in the room, stumble across the floor and die. It was biblical. Ross swept them all up into a pyramid. The bug man stayed to watch.
“I’ve never seen that many kinds of roach,” he commented.
Back at the studio, Ross and I started to plan for our big opening. I had a very provincial plan. I was painting a life-size self-portrait but was going to figure out a way to make it “new” by attaching some kind of sound system to the painting that would involve my reading my poetry as though the painting was speaking. I have no idea how I intended to do it as I never got that far for a lot of reasons, most of them having to do with staying sane. Ross’ plan was WAY out there.
The first thing she wanted to do was put a sophisticated awning on our sidewalk entrance, something she thought would look like New York. My best friend Ann was a decorator and she told me whom to call. The awning man came and stood on the sidewalk by our entrance while we explained what we wanted to do. Looking amused, he took measurements and let us choose the canvas from his sample book. We chose black. Sophisticated!
While I worked on my big portrait, sometimes standing on a box since I am short, Ross worked on her sculptures. Everything she did related to bed ticking. She would take all of the tip money she could spare and buy old things and have them made into something of bed ticking. For instance she bought a horse collar and had it upholstered in bed ticking. I began to spend more time helping her than doing my own work because hers eventually involved riding around Southside and looking for more things to have made into something of bed ticking. One time we found a mattress sitting by the side of the road. At the time, I had a red Mustang convertible. It was kind of a struggle but we got the mattress on top of the opened car so Ross could hold onto it while I drove. I remember it smelled awful and little bits of things rained down on us the whole time, but we got it up the stairs and into our studio.
Were we nuts?? Can you imagine where that mattress had BEEN? Somebody probably died on it. I am sure they had vomited on it. How many reasons are there to throw a mattress away?
That night, back in my suburban house, I scrubbed my self and my hair as though I had been exposed to radiation. Think Meryl Streep in “Silkwood.”

Everyone who came to that show will probably carry the memory of it to the grave. I know they remember the invitation. Ross had been arrested for something small and I have forgotten what it was but she did have an arrest record that she treasured. Real artists are like that. She insisted on having formal invitations printed with her record on the front like a postcard, in sepia ink. We got some kind of massive mailing list and bought a lot of stamps and sent them off not having any idea what would happen.
Everybody came, from all across the societal board.
It was like a contained explosion. There was an unearthly level of noise. I expected the police to show up – maybe they did but got caught up in the crowd. Ross knew everyone in the hippy universe and one of them had made ethanol for the drinks – we had a really cool bar set up – and another friend had brought her band. To me it sounded like cacophony but everyone else seemed to love it. We had fleshed out our mattress collection and they were lined up along the wall of the biggest room. All of Ross’ upholstered sculptures were placed around on the floor or hanging on the wall. I had an old typewriter and had fed in a piece of paper and typed a passage from J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme – with Love and Squalor”: “Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words ‘Dear God, life is hell’.” I suppose I thought this made me look intellectual. It was supposed to be the title of that particular mattress.
The president of the Birmingham Museum of Art came and seemed to take the show seriously. The show was reviewed in the newspaper. I had made a poster with lettering from a template that said “Art is a lover/ Art is all over” in descending size sentences. Someone wanted to buy it. I don’t remember what happened to it because I was so busy looking around and wondering how on earth I had arrived in that room over a bar, surrounded by mattresses which I thought of as art but which were probably the ur-source for bedbugs and lice. Maybe it was because I was scared to drink the homemade ethanol and was therefore stone cold sober. Maybe it was because, at last, I had worn out whatever god of art had been living in me, the god I should have exhausted a long time ago. The real God doesn’t like that god and the people who worship that god often come to sorry ends. I went home.

Two years later I was living in a new house, the god of art still alive in me but small and weak, kind of like the god of some unknown tribe in a country too small to map. It was a very nice house and I was trying to pay attention to the details of the place. The kitchen was big and painted white, but on one of the walls I had painted the lines of a poem from W. B. Yeats to remind me of who I was, perhaps to throw a bone to the god. “Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance: How can we know the dancer from the dance?” By that time I pretty much knew the difference.

There was a walled garden in the back of my new house with a herringbone brick terrace. It was hard to sit out there because it was so sunny and I decided to put in an awning for shade. I called the awning place and the same man came. By then I had a different last name but he remembered me from the studio downtown. I wish you had seen the expression on his face.

Sad to say, the painting I bought from Ross, the one she sold to buy coal, was lost in New York. I gave it to my son Ansel to hang in his room at Yale, but it got left behind when he was visiting a friend on his way home for Christmas his senior year. He was returning the painting to me. I have this vision of it floating around the Village, apartment to apartment, ending up in an estate sale, bought by someone with an “eye.” Maybe it’ll turn up on Antique’s Road Show someday. I’d know it anywhere: The swastika on the mitre is hard to forget. Ross is hard to forget.

Being a Realist

February 1 – oops, it’s February 2

bookI thought I had gone to bed so I could be rested for work tomorrow (“work” being finishing a watercolour of a blue bearded Iris), but I have to take tamoxifen every night because of a bout with breast cancer two and a half years ago and if you have ever taken this drug you know that it has a roomful of side effects, one of which is stomach ache. So I am up and about, waiting till it calms down. I try to keep the fire of this memory tamped down.

As I was saying, I had gone to bed and had been reading a book given to me by my great-niece Ivey – This I Believe IIshort very personal essays written by a variety of people about such subjects as love, fear, happiness and how to make it through a hard time, all apropos for me right now. Today is my birthday – or rather, yesterday, since it is past midnight. and I will use this grand stage of life to announce something I believe, in keeping with the book: Life is extremely hard unless you are stupid. The old adage “Ignorance is bliss” is true. If any of us understand and consider that all of us will suffer and die and, consequently, spend our time trying to theorize why, then, are we here instead of being absorbed by softer thoughts – like who will win the Superbowl – we will have to develop some tough attitudes to help us through. I guess this is why we revel in distractions, so we won’t have to have these hard thoughts. Speaking of distractions:

It is “Oscar Month” on TCM and tonight “Bridge on the River Kwai” is on. I saw this movie in 1957 when it was released. At the time, I was a student at Stuart Hall in Stanton, Virginia and was taking the train home for Christmas. The train stopped in Washington and during the two-hour layover I went for a walk and discovered a movie theater nearby and went in to see what I could of the movie, then ran back to catch the train south. William Holden was my fave at the time and I truly resented watching him die.

There are 80 essays in “This I Believe”, all designed to help us humans become adjusted to the nightmare of making it through life. I cannot think of a friend or family member who has not experienced outrageous fortune. The book is excellent and makes me want to read volume one.

Here’s one of the accounts I can learn from: “The Long Road to Forgiveness” by Kim Phuc. Ah! This is the little girl in the iconic photo from the Vietnam war, running naked after her clothes – and her skin – had been burned by napalm. She, the grown-up she – is a person of faith, forgiveness and love. Not sure I could get to that place after being bombed. I am a realist.

Now, my stomach appeased by cottage cheese and my mind made compliant by reading about simple goodness, I will try again to sleep and hope to fall into the deep, comforting fantasy dream of myself and some male doing the “bop” in Panama City – laughing, barefoot, the unique smell of the Gulf of Mexico reaching all the way to the pavilion. In my dreams I am always dancing.

Happy Birthday to me and to my cousin Perry and her friend Sarah, all members of the February First Club.

Supernatural

PeytieBooksI wish I could say I was reading something complex and perhaps in French but instead I am reading Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James. I love ghost stories and am always in search of a new one – but it is neglected genre, probably because it is hard to write. My favorites are The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson), The Turn of the Screw (Henry James), The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters) and The Uninvited (Dorothy Macardle).

I just re-read two of M.R. James stories, hoping they would lull me to sleep but I did not choose wisely. They are unsettling to say the least:  “The Tractate Middoth” and “Casting the Runes”. M.R. James was the Provost of King’s College Cambridge in the early nineteenth century, and on many a Christmas Eve would retire to his chambers and read aloud his latest ghost story to friends. His story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You , My Lad” is hair-raising.

The movie The Haunting is the best film adaptation of a ghost story I have ever seen. If you have not seen it, watch it, but don’t watch it alone. Also the ancient film The Uninvited with Ray Milland, which I saw when I was a little girl – it was released in 1944 and I probably saw it sometimes after that as movies were slow to come to the small town of Greenville. I mostly remember that it almost scared me to death.

It’s a beautiful day and I’ll going out to shake the ghosts out of my head and look for something blue and white.