Archive for the 'Memoir' Category

Rosebud 60

issue60Rosebud 60 (Fall/Winter 2015) is a beauty. There’s the joyous cover art by featured artist Toni Pawlowsky. Inside, for starters, you’ll find all five winning essays in Rosebud’s eighth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Nonfiction (which I had the pleasure of co-judging with editor Rod Clark): Grand Prize winner Chris Ellery (“A Boy of Bethany”), and runners-up Jennifer Arin (“Adrián de Sevilla”), Katherine Baker (“No Gas, No Soap in Cuba”), Joan Frank (“The Where of It”), and Brett Alan Sanders (“Attractions of Barbarity, or Dreaming a Complete Argentina”). The winning essays this year are international in scope with timely and thought-provoking visits to Jerusalem, Paris, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

There’s much more goodness to unpack in Rosebud 60, from poetry by Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to the “medical science fiction” of Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro (“The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”). Even a graphic short story (“What Is” by Mort Castle) illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. And we’re still only scratching the surface. Regular features include top-of-their-game work from Rod Clark, P. S. Mueller, and Rick Geary. Guest art director Kathy Sherwood (filling in for Parnell Nelson, sidelined with health concerns, but returning for Rosebud 61) has given the magazine a sleek presentation.

Spoke

Spoke
Coleman
Little Creek Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

SpokeCoverIn 1959, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres, Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist, a married mother with three young sons, suffered third-degree burns over 90% of her body from what was either a bathroom dress-cleaning incident with a can of gasoline gone tragically awry or else a failed attempt at suicidal self-immolation. Rosalyn’s 10-year-old son, Joe Gilchrist (who would later as an adult change his name legally to Coleman and come to write Spoke, the memoir under review), ran outdoors to aim the garden hose ineffectually at the closed bathroom window like a traumatized Peanuts character. Inside the house his father and older brother took the necessary steps to break through the bathroom door and wrap Rosalyn in blankets and douse the flames.

After months of painful reconstructive surgery (“She lost her ears, her nose, her eyelids, and most of her fingers. Her breasts. Her lips. Part of her tongue”), Rosalyn returned home to an initially supportive community. However, it wasn’t long before a local reverend asked that Rosalyn not attend Sunday services because her scarred appearance was unnerving to the congregation.

During ongoing Oklahoma City hospital visits for treatment of her burn wounds, Rosalyn found solace through growing friendships with the African American nursing staff. Soon she was a welcome congregant of black church services at Calvary Baptist Church. She joined the NAACP and became a Youth Council volunteer, further alienating her from the all-white Warr Acres suburban community.

The Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council was the famed activist organization behind the 1958 Katz Drug Store lunch-counter sit-ins that ended the chain store’s discriminatory lunch-counter policy throughout the South. By the time Rosalyn joined the organization in the early 60s, they were busier than ever staging sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies in support of civil rights. When Rosalyn divorced her husband and put their house up for sale to a black family, a cabal of outraged Warr Acres elders—including the aforementioned local reverend, the chief of police, and Rosalyn’s ex-husband—successfully conspired to have her committed to the state mental hospital.

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Coleman

Coleman eventually helped obtain his mother’s release from her illegal institutionalization, but not before moving out on his own, attending Cornell University, and becoming a campus Vietnam War draft resister. He gained wider notoriety when—inspired by the personal mentorship of radical Catholic antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan—he was arrested in 1970 along with seven others for breaking into the Federal Building in Rochester, New York and shredding Selective Service records.

The locks on the office doors were simple to break. Within minutes each team was at work. The six Rochester draft boards were located in an adjoining series of suites in the middle of the building’s second floor. There we labored all night—prying open locked desks and file cabinets with crowbars, disgorging an avalanche of draft records, and then feeding them handful by handful into one of two paper shredders we’d brought with us. The shredders were noisy, but this didn’t worry us. We were in the middle of the building on the second floor, and it was late night on a lazy holiday weekend. Downtown Rochester was a ghost town. There was nothing to worry about.

Spoke is a bracing, full-immersion memoir about political activism in the 1960s that is unlike any memoir of the era you are ever likely to read. And it is as a testament to the indomitable spirit of his mother that Coleman’s memoir especially distinguishes itself. As he speaks with those who knew her during times when she was absent from his life, we share in his miraculous discovery of her kindnesses and near-mystical calm in the midst of personal anguish and adversity. She will inspire readers as surely as she inspired her son to strive always to do the right thing when called upon to take a stand.

Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated

Coming September 2013
Cambridge Book Review Press

0989402517Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated
By Judy Endow, MSW

$30.00. Buy from PayPal or Amazon

“Working 13 years with students who are diagnosed with severe autism, my colleagues and I have often wanted to visualize and better understand what our students were seeing, feeling and thinking. Judy Endow’s Painted Words takes us on a picturesque journey into the mind of one autistic person through her vivid and breathtaking paintings and sculptures while also explaining in detailed description and poetry what she sees and, via sensory, how she experiences it. Helpful suggestions for working with individuals on the spectrum open a treasure box of insights. Having this ‘backstage pass’ into autism will be priceless for educators, parents and individuals on the autism spectrum.” —Joanna L. Keating-Velasco, educator, and author of A is for Autism, F is for Friend: A Kid’s Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism.

“Judy Endow combines her art, poetry, and prose to create a thought-provoking book of self-discovery that viscerally captures the essence of a world which only few experience—a world of subtle beauty that can turn too bright, loud, and overwhelming. The practical advice at the end of each chapter has helped me understand and be a better parent to my autistic child. Painted Words is a book to read, reread and share with other parents, educators, physicians, and therapists so they too can learn to appreciate the autistic experience. I’m buying it for all of my friends!” —Debra Hosseini, author of The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions.

“Judy gives us a compelling view into her world through words crafted on the page, connected with images that illustrate her experience of being autistic. She encourages the neurotypical world to change their perceptions and assumptions about people with autism, to ask ourselves questions. Painted Words challenges our thinking, leading us to examine beyond what we see on the surface. Your view of autism is bound to shift after experiencing autism through Judy’s words and paintings.” —Maureen Bennie, Director, Autism Awareness Centre, Inc. (www.autismawarenesscentre.com).

“By sharing her paintings and poetry in Painted Words, Judy Endow provides rare insight into a person with autism, including her heightened sensory awareness, her need to establish predictability, her social needs, and much more. This captivating book tempts the reader to learn more about the uniqueness of autism and its neurological impact. Judy shares her experiences, asks thoughtful questions, and challenges the reader, by putting words and visuals to her early childhood. She provides her vision of the world, and her perspective will flood you with emotions and leave you looking through fresh lenses at those with autism. Painted Words is a wonderful gift to us so-called neurotypicals. We may very well feel like we are the ones that are lacking and, thus, not measuring up. Using her own words, I summarize Judy’s contribution with this book by saying, ‘The girl her mastery shows!’” —Danette Schott, M.A., executive editor, special-ism.com.

“Judy Endow has long been one of my finest and clearest teachers when it comes to understanding autism. In Painted Words, Judy takes me into a new, deeper comprehension of her experience of autism using the mediums of poetry, prose and visual expression via her paintings. Her strong activist voice takes no prisoners, requiring me to examine how my own neurotypical arrogance can be a contraindicator in forming relationships with those in my life with autism. This strength is juxtaposed by the clarity of Judy’s paintings, which provides both visual representation and softness, entering my consciousness in a manner completely different than the words that accompany and explain. Judy’s ability to use her own experience to provide ideas and strategies for working with others is a treasure which she shares in each section of the book. Painted Words is a book that will appeal to autistics and neurotypicals alike, as we move forward to bridge the differences in how we experience the world to forge relationships and create better lives for those we love with autism.” —Kate McGinnity, M.S., educational consultant, and co-author of Walk Awhile in My Autism and Lights! Camera! Autism!.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is a sensitive and beautiful portal into a life lived with autism. Through evocative paintings and poetry, Judy explores her own experiences and offers invaluable advice to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with people on the autism spectrum. This heartfelt book sparkles and glitters. Highly recommended.” —Jeanette Purkis, author of Finding a Different Kind of Normal: Misadventures with Asperger Syndrome.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is an immersive, artful, and educational experience in understanding autism. Judy reveals her autistic neurology or ‘operating system’ by showing her way of perceiving, thinking, and learning. Painted Words is a step up from autism awareness. It is about understanding and accepting diverse minds.” —Jill Jones, filmmaker, currently researching and producing a documentary about autism and sensory perception (www.spectrumthefilm.com).

“Judy has brilliantly demonstrated her skill as a writer and an artist who proudly lives and loves autism. Her candid words and stunning art light up the spectrum as an example of the endless potential of all autistic people.” —Malcolm Mayfield, specialist/consultant, founder of Autism STAR (Autism Spectrum Training, Advocacy and Recruitment), www.autism-star.com.

Painted Words takes the reader on an unforgettable journey far beyond written text—to a place where visual imagery dances with poetry to provide an intimate understanding of the world of an autistic. Judy Endow’s powerful use of personal art work, poetry, and written text is a must read for every professional working with individuals on the spectrum.” —Ellen E. Eggen, MS LPC ATR-BC, Art Therapist, Director of Planning and Operations, Common Threads Family Resource Center, Madison, Wisconsin.

“What a wonderful book! In combining her talents in both writing and the visual arts, Judy Endow has given us an intimate look into her life with autism that is informative, engaging, beautiful, and thought-provoking. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book.” —Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D., Director of Education, Upper School for the McCarton School, and the Founding Chair of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research (OAR).

“Judy reveals her unique sensory experience in this generous and compassionate offering. Here, as always, her words provide keys to understanding the autism experience. Yet more remarkably, Painted Words reveals her experience through pristine and seminal art images that open the autism experience in ways that words cannot. The vivid colors and textures of her art invite us into her experience. Her ability to define crucial aspects of the autism experience is matched by precise suggestions to guide neurotypical connection and relationship with persons with autism. I hope Painted Words helps you listen and see with new eyes. Prepare to leave misguided conceptions of autism behind you.” —John B. Thomas, M. Ed., educational consultant, and a principal author of TEACCH Transition Assessment Profile (TTAP).

Painted Words is an especially valuable book because it weaves together, in a single volume, the prose, poetry, art and sculpting skills of the author with autism demonstrating how they interlink, interact and complement each other. That is an interesting experiential venture in its own right. But the book doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the ‘Considerations When Working With Others’ section at the end of each chapter provides very useful and practical advice distilled from all of the above. These useful hints, tips and pearls are easily understood and applied, put forth in a very reader friendly fashion, for anyone wanting to better understand the differences between autistic and neurotypical thinking and behavior.” —Darold Treffert, M.D., author of Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant, and a consultant on the movie Rain Man (www.savantsyndrome.com).

About the Author

judyendowAuthorPhoto

Judy Endow

Judy Endow, MSW, is an author and international speaker on a variety of autism-related topics. She is part of the Wisconsin DPI Statewide Autism Training Team and a board member of both the Autism Society of America, Wisconsin Chapter and the Autism National Committee. In addition, Judy works with the Autistic Global Initiative (AGI), a program of the Autism Research Institute. She maintains a private practice in Madison, Wisconsin, providing consultation for families, school districts and other agencies. Besides having autism herself, she is the parent of three now grown sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Judy’s website is www.judyendow.com.

The Last Tycoon

Photo: B & B Rare Books, Ltd. A 1941 First Edition of The Last Tycoon. Value: $4,000.

Inspired on several fronts (seeing Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby; rewatching the 1974 Gatsby; revisiting Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon), I just finished reading again after many years F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous The Last Tycoon, edited by Edmund Wilson and published in 1941. The Last Tycoon is the title by which I still prefer to think of the novel. There’s an updated 1993 reconstruction by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli which uses what Bruccoli believed was Fitzgerald’s choice for the novel’s title, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Fitzgerald originally floated some curious titles for The Great Gatsby, too. How does Trimalchio grab you? By whatever title, The Last Tycoon is a great novel, even in its incomplete form. (A worthy contemporary comparison: David Foster Wallace’s unfinished but much-admired novel The Pale King, edited by Michael Pietsch and published in 2011.)

Thirty-five-year-old Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr’s obsession with an Englishwoman’s resemblance to his late actress wife might at first seem superficially similar to Gatsby. Fitzgerald in his letters and notes about The Last Tycoon, many of which were famously appended to Wilson’s reconstructed text, writes:

If one book could ever be “like” another, I should say it is more “like” The Great Gatsby than any other of my books. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions, perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.

DeNiroStahr

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Stahr’s self-awareness evolves over the course of the narrative and differs significantly from Gatsby’s static and deluded nostalgia. This perhaps reflects Fitzgerald’s own battle with despair and loss in the years following Gatsby’s publication. (See Edmund Wilson’s posthumously edited collection of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical essays, The Crack-Up.) The Great Depression coincided with Fitzgerald’s falling fortunes: money woes, ill-health, his wife Zelda’s confinement to a mental hospital, and his career slide into near-obscurity. After living extravagantly as one of the country’s highest paid and most famous writers of the 1920s, he was an out-of-print and largely neglected author by the time he was writing his final novel. The romantic obsession at the core of The Last Tycoon is less about nostalgia than Stahr’s struggle to micromanage a psychological corner of his life while everything else seems to be spiraling beyond his control. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the Hollywood that Stahr once dominated as an autocratic whiz-kid producer is becoming decentralized. “At that time the studios feared mob rule,” runs one passage. Stahr’s preparation for a meeting with a communist union organizer has a political edge that signaled the author’s broadening skills as a satirist and social observer:

Afterwards Stahr told me that he prepared for the meeting by running off the Russian Revolutionary films that he had in his film library at home. He also ran off Doctor Caligari and Salvador Dali’s Le Chien Andalou, possibly suspecting that they had a bearing on the matter. He had been startled by the Russian films back in the twenties, and on Wylie White’s suggestion he had the script department get him up a two-page “treatment” of the Communist Manifesto.

Monroe Stahr is wonderfully alive in his sometimes cruel complexity (heightened by the novel’s occasionally spiteful narrator, a rival producer’s daughter secretly in love with Stahr). His confidence is shaken and something new and untested is awakened in him. “I want to show that Stahr left certain harm behind him just as he left good behind him,” Fitzgerald writes in another of the supplemental notes. Stahr isn’t adverse to change, but he wants change on his own terms, unshackled from the studio’s cash-driven bottom line. “For two years we’ve played it safe,” Stahr says at one point to a gathering of suspicious studio heads and money men. “It’s time we made a picture that’ll lose some money.” No dewy-eyed idealist, he adds: “Write it off as good will—this’ll bring in new customers.”

The Last Tycoon was also a reawakening of Fitzgerald’s preternatural talent for writing about romantic infatuation in a manner that manages to embrace clichés while at the same time reinvigorating them:

“I don’t want to lose you now,” he said. “I don’t know what you think of me or whether you think of me at all. As you’ve probably guessed, my heart’s in the grave—” He hesitated, wondering if this was quite true. “—but you’re the most attractive woman I’ve met since I don’t know when. I can’t stop looking at you. I don’t know now exactly the color of your eyes, but they make me sorry for everyone in the world—”

TycoonMovie

Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon never quite catches fire, but it’s a fascinating attempt nonetheless, in its Harold Pinter script (remarkably faithful to the more polished sections of the novel), and many of the performances, especially Robert De Niro’s elusive and darkly internalized portrayal of Monroe Stahr. A notorious flop when released, the movie ended Elia Kazan’s directing career. Kazan devotes seventeen painful pages to the making of the film in his 1988 autobiography, A Life. He was dealing with his mother’s failing health and, finally, her death, during production. Moreover, there were clashes with producer Sam Spiegel. The film deserves reevaluation. It’s never revived or talked about anymore. There’s a strong and richly amusing climactic scene with Jack Nicholson as Brimmer, the novel’s communist union organizer, playing a spirited match of Ping-Pong with De Niro’s Stahr. It’s taken nearly verbatim from the novel and it’s a highlight of the movie. Kazan’s film would make for a great double feature with Last Call, a surprisingly eloquent 2002 Showtime movie based on Francis Kroll Ring’s memoir about working for Fitzgerald during his final days in Hollywood writing The Last Tycoon.

Because You Have To: A Writing Life

Because You Have To: A Writing Life
Joan Frank
University of Notre Dame Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank poses a stark riddle in Because You Have To: A Writing Life, her disarming and candid collection of literary essays. She asks, “What do you call a state of mind which anticipates its own recurring annihilation?” For many of us, whether writers or not, this is a chillingly accurate description of compromised serenity. “In usual fact,” Frank states, “few of us have the money to buy necessary pockets of stillness.”

The struggle to write becomes the struggle to wrest clear-headedness from the anxious bread-and-butter strivings and obligations that demand our attention throughout the day. As the author of three novels (most recently, Make It Stay), two short story collections, and an earlier volume of essays, Joan Frank is one of the clearest-headed writers working. Because You Have To shows us how she gets the work done. The roadblocks, sometimes self-imposed, are legion and Frank fearlessly exposes them:

I have long wished to dissect envy, in a naïve yearning to be rid of it. Writers like to peer at the forbidden, to tease out components of the monstrous; why not spotlight envy, turning it like mildew toward the noon sun to banish it? Heaven knows envy’s democratic enough; old and young, published and unpublished do their time on one or the other end of the strained congratulatory remarks, the sharp reconfigurations of the face. A writing teacher I admire once mused to a class: “Writers are some of the least charitable people there are.”

Acerbic insights are a hallmark of Frank’s fiction. Her essays are no less uncompromising. She shares with us her writer’s life of exhaustive day jobs and economic hardship. In an epochal election year when the widening chasm of class disparity haunts so many of us, her essay “Never Enough” has the righteous fire of an Occupy manifesto. Comprising 173 numbered paragraphs mixing autobiography and her own hard-boiled aphorisms on the themes of money and inequality in America, “Never Enough”—to put a price on it—is worth the cost of the book:

10. I disdained wealth, distrusted wealthy people. They seemed to prove my private theory: big money—though it gets things done—really, really fucks you up. Wealthy people wore a manner: the gleam of distaste in the eye, the lean-meat-and-white-wine body. I found them pitiful. I felt sorry for all they did not comprehend, for all the life they were missing.

There is also good-humored encouragement to be found in these essays. “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Rejection Business,” for example, offers Frank’s hilarious deconstruction of a form letter rejection. More to the point, she advises us not to fear the world turning its back on us: “Rejection, then, is like the wake of a boat: proof of motion. No action from the writer means no reaction from the world. To risk rejection is to risk reaction and, as such, a courageous step.”

Joan Frank

Threaded throughout Because You Have To are warm and sometimes conflicted reminiscences of her father, a humanities professor, whose death came too early from a heart attack at age 54. (“He was searching desperately, recklessly. As if liquor and sex were large, clumsy keys he kept fumbling with, trying to fit them into a stubborn lock.”) Her own marriage to a college English professor comes under similar laser-like scrutiny, although it appears her husband was granted vetting privileges over occasionally unflattering anecdotes and recounted arguments. (“He has read these words and raised no objection.”)

Frank unabashedly shares her vulnerabilities with us. A scene of the author trying to read uninterrupted at the kitchen table is pointed and funny but also captures the awful tension between solitude and companionship that makes marriage (and, Frank is suggesting, the art of writing) a precarious balancing act:

I am trying to read a short Sunday newspaper piece at the kitchen table. My husband also reads across the table, but he stops his reading to comment to me. I make acknowledging noises and smile and refocus on my page, hoping he will be drawn into the section before him. He speaks again. I make the same noises and resume the same sentence I am reading. We have so little time together I cannot bring myself to utter, “Sweetheart, please, I need to finish this.” Because if I had my way I would always need to finish something, always need to be alone. If I achieved that—and the option to live alone again is always available, after all—I could not bear it. I love my husband, my family. Therein, the paradox.

Authors and books are name-checked and quoted frequently in these 23 essays as if part of the air Joan Frank breathes. Her enthusiasms are infectious and readers may find themselves wanting to revisit or visit for the first time some of the writers that inspire her: Martin Amis, Charles Baxter, Sven Birkerts, Robert Bly, Raymond Chandler, Thaisa Frank, Bonnie Friedman, Gail Godwin, Shirley Hazzard, Anne Lamott, William Maxwell, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jane Smiley, to name a few.

“I wrote these essays in the grip of them, as serial obsessions,” Frank writes in the Preface to Because You Have To. A serial obsession to read these essays and share them with friends is sure to grip lovers of literature and seekers of time well spent.

Wisconsin’s Walden—Adding Shadows to Paths of Light

 

The current issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas (Winter 2011) includes my essay on August Derleth’s 1961 Walden West. The book is a portrait of the people and landscape of Sac Prairie, a lightly fictionalized composite of Derleth’s Sauk City hometown and the adjacent village of Prairie du Sac. It’s an evocative literary work that’s never really gotten its due. Here’s a brief passage from my piece:

In Walden West Derleth captures a small-town populace increasingly alienated from a natural world to which their rhythms are still connected. It is a book written by a stubborn, unapologetic regionalist, who, in 1961, seemed out of step with the forward-looking optimism and youthful vigor of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. While not outright ignored, Walden West was critically panned upon publication. “These sketches have little distinction, no particular chronology or unifying drama,” sniffed a critic for Kirkus Reviews.

My thanks to the magazine’s editor, Jason Smith, and literary editor, John Lehman. An earlier version of this essay won the Council for Wisconsin Writers Rediscovering Wisconsin Writers Award in 2004.

God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World

God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World
Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens
Tebot Bach 2010

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Lavish is the word that comes to mind when beholding God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World (Tebot Bach, 2010) by poet Rebecca Foust and artist Lorna Stevens. Well established in their respective mediums, Foust and Stevens’ collaboration in God, Seed is one of those felicitous combustions of text (forty-three poems) and illustration (thirty full-color images) that result in a brilliant hothouse hybrid.

Readers should prepare themselves for sensory overload if not an outright short-circuit when experiencing a two-page spread of, say, Stevens’ lush eye-popping watercolor of a parsimmon opposite Foust’s sensual accompanying poem, “Parsimmons” (“ … rich river pudding, plush and pulp, / soft-slide swallow delight / and sweet, sweet”).

Conversely, later on, we are chilled to the bone by Stevens’ austere black brushwork depicting galloping bison that mimics the timeless mysteries of a prehistoric cave drawing. Foust’s chastising poem is “Last Bison Gone” (“We love what we love / in the scientific way, efficient, empiric, / vicious, too much …). Thus are the contrasting poles of God, Seed established: rapturous pleasure in nature’s bounty on the one hand, while, on the other, rapacious misuse and abuse of all that humanity surveys.

Rebecca Foust’s poetry has always struck at the heart of hard truths. Her first two tough-minded chapbooks (consecutive winners of the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize in 2007 and 2008) were reviewed favorably in our online pages. Dark Card, Foust’s debut, shook a righteous fist at doctors and gods alike for the plight of her son, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Mom’s Canoe, the follow-up, bracingly recaptured the poet’s own childhood growing up in the depressed strip-mining region of western Pennsylvania.

Although ostensibly casting a wider impersonal net in God, Seed, it is a testament to Foust’s raw unflinching truth-telling that a poem like “Frog”—about genetically mutated amphibians in a PCB-poisoned pond—spirals instead toward the son whom we remember from Dark Card:

Still, sleeping,
I dreamt of my son,
his genes expressed

not as autism, but as
four thumbs on two
extra hands

and I want to blame
someone. I want
to drain that pond.

God, Seed respects and encourages full immersion in the world—politically and personally—an attainable if too often lost connection to our surroundings. The poem “Now,” for instance, erases all borders between our bodies and nature’s enraptured seasonal rebirth: “… places in the body’s uncharted waters, new worlds / lying green and deep off winter’s bow // and now, spring. Bone-ache thaw, wind sough / through snow-scoured woods, bud swell …”

And yet, lest we fall prey to the ecstasy of hubris, the final poem in Foust and Stevens’ God, Seed, “Perennial,” gives nature the last word by writing us out of the picture altogether: “When you’re gone, it won’t matter to the musk rose / twining the old trellis over the eaves. Willow / will continue to pour her yellow-green waterfall // next to forsythia, one half-tone better on the scale / of bright …”

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
David Lipsky
Broadway Books 2010

Reviewed by Bob Wake

althoughofcourseIn the sad days following the suicide of 46-year-old writer David Foster Wallace in September 2008, when the Internet seemed to spontaneously erupt with eulogies far and wide, novelist Steve Erickson wrote: “There are no statistics to prove it, but the anecdotal evidence is that he may have influenced the upcoming generation of writers more than almost anyone else.” There’s his narrative style, certainly, discursive and intellectual, yet brimming with colloquialisms and concise twelve-stepisms. The dizzying footnotes. The convoluted self-consciousness unfolding like Chinese boxes of innerspace, compulsive, chatty. A humane and witty voice both inviting and wounded. George Saunders’s New Yorker short story from last year, “Victory Lap,” with its hypertext parentheticals is only one of the more recent examples of Wallacean influence.

David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is not unlike one of those always fascinating Paris Review author interviews. Supersized, of course, befitting the author of Infinite Jest, the still notorious big fat dystopian novel of twining plots converging on addiction and recovery, cinema and suicide, tennis and terrorism. Lipsky’s book, apart from some graceful introductory material, is essentially a 300-page transcript—from what must have been a mountain of cassette-tape research for a Rolling Stone profile that subsequently wasn’t written—of Lipsky’s conversations with the writer during the last five days of the 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

Because Wallace—suddenly and explosively famous—was written about and interviewed extensively during and after this book tour, some topics of conversation will be thematically familiar to fans: the cigarettes and chewing tobacco that often got the better of him (“I’ve got a raging nicotine problem. That like that I really need to quit, at least the chewing tobacco. It makes your fucking jaw fall off. You know?”); John Updike is overrated (“And you just have to wade through so much purple empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill”); Stephen King is underrated (“He’s got an almost Salingerian feel for children”); the influence of filmmaker David Lynch on his writing (“I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra-realism, it’s something on top of realism. It’s the one thing in a Lynch frame that’s off”).

He talks about the too-easy resort to irony and ridicule that he finds in David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh. “I don’t know what’s going to come after it,” he says, “but I think something’s gonna have to.” Lipsky then asks Wallace to speculate—“What do you think it will be?”—and Wallace’s answer is startlingly prescient of an Obama-like appeal to civic virtue and our better instincts:

My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it will be vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us.

Wallace struggled in his teens and early twenties with drug addiction and clinical depression, successfully overcoming the former while keeping at bay if never fully banishing the latter. Lipsky’s resurrected transcripts give us Wallace speaking openly about his past while cautioning that “there’s certain stuff about this that I won’t talk about.” To the extent that he feels remorseful about having pressured Wallace to the point of irritation in hope of some juicy disclosure about a rumored dalliance with heroin (“Why is this of particular interest?” Wallace asks, in a tone described as “annoyed”), Lipsky makes clear that he was himself feeling pressured by his editors to take this tack. All in all, his role as archivist and tour-guide is impeccable and heartfelt. Lipsky, like so many of us, clearly shares a deep sense of loss, as in this bracketed aside in response to Wallace recalling his troubled college years: “Wouldn’t it be great to fall in through this transcript, back to that house, and tell him to live differently, explain to him how it was all going to go? It’s suddenly odd that this isn’t possible.”

Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook

Madison poet Norma Gay Prewett visited us in Cambridge to record several pieces of poetry and prose centered around her mother, who died four years ago on Prewett’s 56th birthday. Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook is now online at Cambridge Book Review. Here’s a sample:

Bill of Lading / Norma Gay Prewett

A chewed-looking Styrofoam snowman head,
++++++Black felt pipe, googly stuffed-animal eyes
++++++(also the bag of eyes, I discover later)
A sweater that smells disagreeable unless it is your mom’s
++++++An ocher clipping with a penned-in arrow
++++++To my head—”My Daughter” as if I don’t
++++++Recall sitting in turpentine at Methodist art camp
Some recipes she never used, but carefully copied longhand
++++++Swedish meatballs, ham loaf, Hanukkah cookies
++++++Did she know we were not Jewish? Did she know
The people in the multi-picture frame, never filled with us,
++++++So beautiful and fresh, having action-packed fun?
++++++She never saw the sea, but pictures of the sea—
++++++Did she long for the thrum of waves on pebble?
Some hanks of yarn, maybe free, from the spinners where
++++++Her working life began at fifty, where she nearly
++++++Fell in love with her foreman, but for her bad heart
Her bad heart, to my brother, who died with it in his chest.
++++++Her Ozark drawl, her temper, her madwalk to my sis-
++++++ter; her terror of twisters to all, her scrawl she left
++++++backwards, to her ma. After all, most say I got
Her hazel eyes, her love of fun, her Irish hair, and the low
++++++Thyroid that left her brows and mine scant
++++++She left her death-day as my birthday, to me, alone.


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