By four o’clock Gypsy set out each day for Loew’s Jersey Palace on Journal Square. Her usherette’s burgundy uniform with the marigold braid, her military cap, gilt shoes, and flashlight stayed in her basement locker. She wore her own clothes to work, shuffling through mounds of slushy snow. Up ahead the marquee flashed: More Stars Than There Are In Heaven. Five Cents.
Above the Square, Jersey City’s famous movie house floated like a great ocean liner laced with chains of light. Usherettes could be seen through the glass doors, gliding moody-eyed in their dancerly gold T-straps. They roved like sleepwalkers across the thick carpets or leaned with folded arms against the radiators and twisted gold pillars.
When patrons arrived, usherettes woke up and came to life. They tore tickets in half and with their slender torches pointed the moviegoers to their seats. Their lives seemed magically easy, and they made twelve dollars a week.
Gypsy had been at Loew’s only a few weeks since she’d run away from her grandmother’s house, a distance of two miles up the Hudson Boulevard. She was fifteen. She needed money and had no trouble getting hired. Even if 1932 felt like the worst year of the Slump, patrons were always glad to pay a buffalo nickel for a movie, and a pretty girl could always get a job at Loew’s.
Right away, Gypsy made a new friend. Thelma was a tall, bony sylph with a sepulchral voice who paraded in her uniform with the dash of a drum majorette. Thelma sewed fine lingerie in her spare time. She was taking a great interest in Gypsy.
Together they caught glimpses of all the movies from the lobby and the back row. They talked throughout, speculating on what would happen. Whether Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich, with her big hat and straggling cigarette, would give up streetwalking. Whether Jean Harlow, the Saigon tramp in Red Dust, could win Clark Gable away from his socialite girlfriend.
On their breaks, Thelma and Gypsy ran over to the Ming Vase for chop suey and a pot of tea. They liked the atmosphere, the red lanterns and lacquer screens. One evening Thelma bit into an almond cookie and bent her melancholy, horsey face on Gypsy’s. “You don’t look good,” she said in her calamitous drone. “You’re pea green, and your eyes are watery.”
“All the movies we watch,” said Gypsy. “I might need glasses.”
“I don’t mean that. Something’s eating you.”
“Since you mention it,” Gypsy blurted, “I might be—you know.” Her heart pounded with this admission, but what she had to hide couldn’t be hidden forever. Soon she would have to let out the waist of her movie trousers with a safety pin. She prodded a kumquat with her chopstick.
Thelma nodded darkly. “I had an inkling.”
That night after work, the girls didn’t go straight home but eased down in the plush seats along the theater’s back row. They kicked off their golden slippers and toyed with their paper fans from the Ming Vase. Thelma lit up, but Gypsy didn’t want a ciggieboo. The organ that could play thunder, gunfire, and a stringed orchestra had fallen silent. While the colored girls vacuumed the theater, Thelma and Gypsy had things to talk about in low voices.
Thelma propped her long knee bones against the seat in front of her. Without her military cap to hold it down, her hair, the dullish brown of lentil soup, frizzed out as if she were in galvanic shock.
“Who’s the fellow did it?” Thelma asked, seamlessly taking up the topic they had left off in the Ming Vase.
Gypsy bent to massage first one foot, then the other, so she wouldn’t have to look at Thel. “He’s not around.”
“But who is he? You’d know, wouldn’t you? Who it is, I mean?” Thel bored her fateful insinuations into Gypsy’s ear, her warm breath ruffling Gypsy’s blonde curls.
“I do know,” said Gypsy, letting Thel browbeat her.
“I’m not trying to upset you,” Thel said quickly. “We have to find him. He’d come through and do right by you, wouldn’t he? Since he’s the only one it could be. Isn’t he?”
“I said he is. What kind of a person do you think I am!”
Thelma grabbed her hand. “Don’t get sore, Gypsy. I didn’t mean anything like that.”
Gypsy freed her hand to pick up her gold shoes and cradled them in her lap. Her apprehension mounted, seeing how she had become a special charitable cause for friendly Thel. “He doesn’t know. He’s traveling.”
Thel dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and swatted it out with a shoe. “Isn’t that always the way when they knock you up! We have to do something.”
She dug into her big pocketbook and pulled out a cellophane Wonder Bread bag of dried fruit, peanuts, and carrots sticks she brought from home. “Help yourself.” She offered Gypsy the bag with the red-yellow-blue polka dots. Gypsy selected one raisin and set it on her armrest. “It’s not what you might think,” she said. “He’s very nice.”
“Nice or not, it ends up being the same thing.” Thelma munched thoughtfully on a prune. “I can put you in touch with someone to help you get rid of it.”
A willful twinge nipped at Gypsy’s belly. “I don’t know, Thel, I really don’t. It’s a little soon.”
“It’s never soon. You have to act fast.” Thelma gnawed a carrot. “How far gone are you?”
“A couple of months, maybe,” Gypsy said in a faint voice. She knew exactly how long it was.
“Heavens above!” Thelma nibbled nuts from her palm like a pony eating sugar. She dusted her fingers. “I can put you in touch with someone to get rid of it. Let me look around.”
Thelma’s snoopy, good-hearted determination terrified Gypsy. The idea of going under the knife terrified her. She couldn’t say which was worse: dying in a mess of blood—she would surely die—or being chained for life to the small microbe rooted inside her.
“No, please don’t.” She brushed off a stray peanut that had fallen on her lap. “It’s probably nothing.”
“I’ll get on it right away,” said Thelma.
Gypsy felt a fresh battery of palpitations. She squinted up at the immense ceiling where spurious clouds wandered overhead and turned to mist. To Gypsy, the shutting-down of the star machine in the ceiling looked like the end of the world. When the house lights dimmed, the faraway stars winked like the eyes of a hovering cosmic malice. They died, but they would be back tomorrow night.
Most days Gypsy felt as if she’d swallowed a dozen gin fizzes, bourbons, and Scotches, though she never touched a drop, and she didn’t even know how to find a speakeasy. She was always drunk. There was no immediate cure for this hormone hangover without doing something desperate. The thing kept unfurling its fetal fumes throughout her body. She was a dream-walker plastered on baby-dew. She pictured herself as a shimmering cocktail cradling a cherry, giving temporary haven to a hapless olive. So brimful, the next breath of air would spill her.
When she showed the movie patrons to their seats in the three-thousand-seat theater—or was it four thousand—the beams of her flashlight dizzied her. She swayed like a drunkard in the cavelike lobby of Loew’s with its amber blaze of Moroccan lamps, naked statuary, and balconies dripping vines, pan-pipes, and mandolins.
One evening after the last show, she found a November Ladies Home Journal left on one of the velvet seats. Idly paging through it, she alighted upon a story called “Lovely Expectations.” She ran down to the girls’ locker room and sat alone on the scarred bench, reading with fearful fascination. The story warbled about “your precious bundle” and “your blessed gift from heaven.” Dry-eyed, Gypsy scanned the columns and found the damning lines: Some of you ladies may feel you have tippled a cocktail. There is no reason to worry. This is a natural symptom of the wonderful changes you are undergoing.
She ripped the pages from the magazine and tore them to shreds that she flushed in the toilet.
On Wednesday she arrived at work early and stood without removing her coat. In the lounge’s spotty glass, she examined her face, bloodless and moony as an opal left to perish in a cave. Mirrors remained coldly mute these days and gave no flattering messages. She didn’t care how cute she looked in her uniform or how the gold braid matched her hair. All she could think about was the unseen thing that had fastened itself in her body to sip at her, that would not let go, that would not give itself up to bleed.
Thel, gaunt as a pipe cleaner, hurried into the lounge to where Gypsy was standing by the mirror and the gray lockers. She was bursting with news.
“I found somebody for you,” she murmured in her secretive sinkhole voice. “I’ll go with you when you get it done. I’d like to see the place for myself.”
Gypsy panicked at how fast Thelma could move. “I don’t want to put you out, Thel.”
“No, I’d love to. You’ll need fifty dollars in cash.”
“Fifty!” That was more than four times her Loew’s weekly salary. She stood frozen. “I can’t. It’s too much,” she said.
“This is not a time to pinch pennies. Look what you’re getting for it. Value for money. I can loan you some, I have quite a bit set by, and for a case like yours, I am glad to help.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can. Besides,” Thel reasoned, in syllables low and tragic, “it’s illegal, so they have to charge over the top. Some doctors charge a hundred or two.”
Gypsy pulled off her galoshes. In the mirror her face was yellow as old piano keys. She shed her coat, scarf, and cap, which crackled with static from the cold weather. She tossed them in her locker. “I can’t make up my mind.”
“You’re crazy!” Thel softly wailed. “You can’t do this to yourself, throw your whole life away. With that bun in the oven, your life is worthless.” She sat on the bench, took an emery board from her handbag, and filed at a thumbnail. “You can’t go looking to the phonies who advertise in the classifieds. This person is good. She’s not a doctor, she’s better than a doctor.” Thelma scoured her thumb in a fury.
“She’s a quack?” Gypsy got into her uniform piece by piece.
Thelma dropped the nail file in her purse and scrutinized Gypsy’s waistline. “Of course not!”
Gypsy cast another look in the mirror at the mouse’s belly under each eye. “I can let you know, can’t I?”
“You haven’t a minute to lose.”
“We’d better go up to our stations.”
“I did this for you, and all you can talk about is our stations?” Thelma gasped in a hollow tone, as if she’d been deprived of her rights to oxygen.
“But the movie opens in half an hour. Mr. Jago will wonder where we are, and I don’t want to be late.” She felt a wave of nausea at the thought of drawing the manager’s wrath.
Thelma gave Gypsy’s arm a hard squeeze of sisterly affection. “You’d be doing the right thing. I’m taking your problem very personally. Besides, she’s on Gifford Avenue. Near the park.”
“What do you mean, Gifford Avenue?”
“It’s a high-class neighborhood. It means she has an up-and-coming practice. She’s getting results.”
“I really have to think it over, Thel. I can’t decide all at once.”
“Think! Don’t waste time thinking. It’s a little pain and bother now, a few days, then you’re freed up for a life of fun.”
They went upstairs to the lobby. In a fog, Gypsy greeted the five o’clock moviegoers and guided them to their seats. She lit up the aisle with her flashlight for a man in a fur collar with his pregnant wife. She was draped in green brocade, big as a sofa.
With the movie playing, Gypsy stole a little time to sit in the theater’s back row alone. She tried to understand what was going on in the movie’s plot, but she paid fitful attention to Barbara Stanwyck’s entanglements with the bootleggers in Night Nurse.
She could think only about Axel, how they had twined their arms around each other, lying in the damp, late-autumn leaves and grass of Mosquito Park, under the monument of the Great War Soldier. Both of their fathers fighting on different sides of that war, Axel’s severe father an enemy leader, Gypsy’s father lost in battle in a French wood. The bronze Soldier, long dead, stood over the lovers, straddle-legged with his musette bag, ready to lob his grenade. He had all eternity to calculate his aim. Gypsy had little time, and time pressed her hard.
To think now about Axel afflicted her with an ache she thought would kill her. His black eyes, the trail of black hair running like an arrow from his navel downward, an arrow her fingers had traced with delight. If only that bodily ache would drive the blood from her insides, the way it drained the blood from her heart.
By Halloween she had reflected on the sucking pull of the autumnal moon on her body’s tides. Her grandmother’s wisdom was all she had, since both her parents were dead, her mother in the influenza epidemic. Her grandmother liked to say, “Girls are ruled by the moon.” Gypsy closed her eyes to concentrate on this dark dictum, but the blood would not be drawn. She pleaded for the cramping of her body that would mean she was okay. She saw her blood flowing, flowing in welcome rivulets, but the pregnant moon was not on her side. That secret blood she looked for each day remained hidden, and her spotless panties mocked her.
The embittering words of Thelma assailed her. Only a little pain now, and you’re freed up for a life of fun.
A fleeting superstition nagged her, that as long as she held on to Axel’s baby, she and Axel had a connection. The baby was a mightier charm than any, attached inside her by a slender string that tied her to Axel wherever he was, a string, a ball of twine that would draw him back to her. He was a high‑flying kite. If she held tight to her end, the wind might tug at him, but he wouldn’t disappear into an endless sky. She might hold on and be able to reel him in. If she cut the cord and let the baby go, that would be the end. She would surely never see him again.
Gypsy was glad when Thelma stayed home from work the following week with a sore throat. It was a throat so sore, a fever so high, she might be kept out for more than two or three days. So Mr. Jago reported. Gypsy felt relief at not having her friend around to advise and torture her. It was all decided, anyway. She was going along with the wisest thing to do, and she didn’t want to have to talk to Thelma about it anymore. She didn’t want Thelma coming along, either.
Instead of strolling over to the Ming Vase, she took her break walking along Vroom Street. She looked at the shops. She badly wanted to distract herself from the awful thing she planned to do, the fact that it was settled for tomorrow when she would carry out the most hurt she’d ever done to herself, but it had to be. Window shopping seemed a good idea. She might do something nice for herself, give herself a present.
She walked alone through the freezing streets. Her nostrils burned with the cold smell of icicles. Gypsy had her wool cap pulled down, her scarf tightly wrapped, but the bone-aching winter freeze bit into her gloved fingertips. In the gutter where dirty snow lay crusted, starved dogs pawed at rubbish barrels, desperate for food. Gypsy hugged the shop windows for warmth.
Stopping outside a parfumerie, she studied the banked clusters of Lucite bottles and artificial orchids. The poster of a girl kissing herself in the mirror. A caption read So soft, so clinging, so lovable, so French. Gypsy felt so cold she couldn’t unclench her jaw. She might have slipped into the shop just to get warm, but the door was locked and the shop looked empty.
She veered past Bond’s haberdasher, where headless mannequins stood clothed in rich wools, their virile wooden bodies stiff and perfectly formed. She imagined she saw Axel in the doorway, but it was a tall, bearded beggar with scorching eyes who asked for a dime.
She stumbled away, her snow-booted feet leading to a boutique called Baby Bunting. In the windows lacy shawls foamed and spilled from pastel garden baskets foretelling spring. The display left her cold. But that was the trouble. She was so cold she would stay cold forever, and she felt like going inside just to have a look. She loitered without deciding, but only for a moment. At least she could get warmed up, since the shop had nothing to do with her. All had been decided, the matter was settled, her mind made up, the appointment set.
She pushed the door to get her teeth to stop chattering. The overheated store smelled like Dr. Rose’s talcum powder. On a shelf teddy bears lounged, pretending to read books of washable cloth.
A dithery old saleslady waylaid her. She had fluffed white hair. Behind the rimless glasses, her periwinkle eyes shone hard as stones. Lavender flowers scattered her organdy-collared dress. She wore antique rings on every white, wrinkled finger and a cameo of a gold Cupid’s head on her chest.
“May I help you, dear?”
“I was just leaving,” said Gypsy, re-buttoning her coat.
The saleslady’s lenses flashed at Gypsy’s flat middle. “When are you due, dear?” Her sticky smile poured like pancake syrup around a question so blunt it was an accusation.
“I’m not.” She still shivered, although the shop was stuffy. Hurrying to the door, she said, to be polite for having soaked up a little warmth, “I have girlfriends who might be, but it’s too expensive for me.”
“How about these, for one dollar?” The saleswoman dangled a pair of yellow booties. “Remember, nothing in Baby Bunting is machine made.” Her tone was less sugary.
Gypsy smiled and brushed past, bumping into something close to the door that had nothing to do with her needs in this real world. It was a pair of red, soft leather shoes that would fit a kewpie doll. Silver buttons fastened the Mary Jane straps.
She didn’t dare to touch them. She couldn’t pass them by. “Would they walk in these?” She heard herself ask and was feeling afraid.
“Why, they’re more for dress-up and showing off. Not for a walking baby,” said the devious crone. “When your friend wants to dandle her little angel for Grampa. And they’re more for a wee girl. Isn’t it a little soon for these?”
Gypsy, feeling miserable, said nothing.
“They’re pricey. But the booties I could reduce to seventy-five cents. They would be perfect for your friend.”
“I don’t know,” Gypsy said. She doted on those shoes. They made her mouth water. She longed for a treat for herself.
“Well,” said the woman doubtfully. “These are all handcrafted in supple Italian leather. I can let you have them for four dollars.” She gave Gypsy a steely appraisal to see how the deal struck her.
“Could I have them gift-wrapped?” Gypsy pulled out her money before she could change her mind. The doll shoes were nearly half of her week’s salary at Loew’s, but she wanted them. They were all she wanted. “That silver tissue paper over there?”
“I’m sorry, we reserve the silver paper for gifts over ten dollars,” the hag demurred.
“I would like that paper, or I might almost faint,” said Gypsy. “I almost might faint.” She pressed her fingers to her temples. She wasn’t wholly lying. She was the only customer. “I don’t want anything like that to happen in your store.”
The woman’s tone turned biting. “I’ll make an exception in your case. These are so tiny they won’t need much paper.”
Gypsy ran all the way to the theater, the held-back tears now freezing on her reddened cheeks. She hugged the shoes to her chest. In the theater basement, she crammed the paper bag with the box inside into her locker before anyone could spy on her.
By the time she finished work and reached her room late that night, she hated everything in the world. She had fashioned a trap to ensnare her unwary footsteps. She opened the box and parted the crunchy silver paper that matched the silver rosette buttons. She held the baleful shoes, and yes, they made her mouth water. She pressed them to her face and sniffed the red tomato-raspberry fragrance of the cured leather. She forced herself to throw them back in the box. She couldn’t bear them. Not putting on a coat, she ran into the alley beside her boarding house and crushed them down into the metal garbage can. She never wanted to see them. She hated, hated, hated them. Let somebody find them.
That night she had to smother the sickness laid upon her by the lure of red shoes, and her brain burned with a bye-bye-baby song. She had to talk to it, explain things to it in its own language. “I got you started with mother-of-pearl knitting needles, belly-button to belly-button. I purled you a pair of ears, then I crocheted you a nose. Now we’re tied together with wires and nailed with spikes. I’m holding you, baby, I’ve still got hold of you, but baby, baby, I don’t think I can do it much longer. I’m not sure you and I will ever meet.
“You’re sailing by the stars, but there could be shipwrecks. Nine stars? Will two or three be enough, baby? Don’t be greedy, you don’t want that much living. Life isn’t a game, believe me. Being born is too hard, that choo-choo down a long, dark alley into the cold crying light; honestly, you don’t want that. Don’t ask for it; don’t ask for what I can’t give. You’re better off without me, so please don’t blame me.
“Can’t you stay wrapped up forever in your white sea-gown? Go sailing up and down the sky through cloudy caves in your wooden shoe, go fish for fishy stars with Wynken and Blynken and Nod. When the moon washes you clean with brine, you’ll roll over and over for a couple more millennia just waiting for me. I’ll see you out there, I promise you, baby, I’ll catch up with you. You’ll just have a head start on me and none of the grief. So can that be all bad?”
In the morning, Gypsy got up in her chilly basement room. She had already taken off Thursday and Friday from work. She said she had to visit her sick grandmother, agreeing to let Mr. Jago, the manager, dock her pay.
She padded across the room to boil water on the hotplate for tea. She moved, dragging her feet through heavy mud. She sat on the wicker chair with the faded cretonne cover to wait for the water to boil. Her grandmother said a watched pot never boils. It’s like saying a watched-for man never comes back. If only stories could have the endings she’d seen so often on the silver screen. If they’re in the movies, they must happen in life. At the last moment when all is lost, well, here he is at the door, pounding down the door. He’s been looking for her, and finally, after months of fruitless search, he gets her address somehow from an unknown well-wisher. He comes knocking, slamming her door down in a passion in the early chill of a midwinter morning, when frost flowers are diamonding the windows under the ceiling of her basement room. Sweeps her in his arms and carries her to his waiting limousine. He has passage reserved on the Normandie or the Europa, and they sail, the two of them, across the Atlantic.
Gypsy knows what it’s like to stand at the railing of an ocean liner, since she’s seen all the movies. Once on the far shore, they drive at breakneck speed in their private motorcar across the map to the old country estate. There at the altar, the fair-haired daughter-in-law, Gypsy, arrayed in pearl-hued bridal satin with a snowy veil….
Movies were so stupid, most of them. She could not be guided by them. Once she’d thought that being an usherette at Loew’s meant she’d watch the lives of the stars and would know what to do herself.
No, you had to make your own decisions. Gypsy dunked her teabag, and when it cooled, she drank her tea. She felt strong and confident, and she had made up her mind. She dressed carefully to bolster her nerve for the snuff movie she was about to make. She had to dress nicely for her baby’s farewell. Garter belt, stockings, teddy trimmed with real Val lace. She slipped her dress from its wood hanger, not the perfumed, satin, padded kind she once had at her grandmother’s. She buckled on a thin, red leather belt. Her waist was still twenty-two inches. Now it wouldn’t ever have to get any bigger. She had painted her toes deep red, for no blood must stain her feet. She kissed herself good-bye in her mirror.
She bundled on her old coat and scarf and cap and went out into the alley, heading for the Journal Square bus for Gifford Avenue. Passing the garbage cans, she took a last, over-the-shoulder look. Hungry dogs had overturned them, spilling trash, pawing at the foulness of the garbage, coffee grounds, banana peels, decaying bones. Rabid and starved, they were tearing apart the box she had stuffed there last night. Fighting over it, eating the red shoes.
“No,” she cried at them and ran to fight them. She kicked at them, swatted them with her purse, shouted at them to scat, get, shoo. They slunk away, yapping, protesting. She picked up the shoes. They were torn but wearable. She held them to her cheek, first one, then the other. She sniffed the soft flesh of the tomato-raspberry leather. They felt warm, vivid, filthy with the breath and slaver of dogs. They were too much alive. Small, malevolent creatures with open mouths. Mouths without tongues. They frightened her as if they could speak. No, not even speak but simply demand life, accusing and forlorn. She didn’t want to look at them ever again, but she did and pressed them to her cheek, to her mouth.
They had caught her unawares, and they opened their piteous red mouths to plead with her. “Let us stay, oh, let us stay, stay with you,” sang the red shoes to Gypsy’s innermost ear.
Excerpt from Volume 10
A CONVERSATION WITH GIBBONS RUARK ABOUT HIS COLLECTION THE ROAD TO BALLYVAUGHAN
With Anne Colwell, Poetry Editor
Colwell: In his review of The Road to Ballyvaughan for World Literature Today, Fred Dings says that the poems in this book “find the exact place on the ledge of speech where ordinary expression lifts off into song.” One of the things I find particularly engaging about the book is not just how the poems themselves sing, but also how they follow the thread of song, singing and keeping time through the geography of the volume. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of music to the journey?
Ruark: Fred Dings's remark is a lovely one, and I don't think I can improve on it. But I do like that idea of the poem somehow being poised in that mysterious space between speech and song. For somebody who can't even carry a tune, I've always had an inordinate love for music of various kinds. It's partly jealousy, I'm sure, wanting to do something somebody else can do and you can't. I suppose the first music I took to heart, after the lullabies sung to me as a child, was really, like those, not chosen by me, but something I was just immersed in because of how I grew up. As you know, my father was a Methodist minister, which meant that as a child I spent a lot of time in church, where the old hymns of course were being sung. Those hymns have stayed with me even though I've long since ceased being a churchgoer. There's a poem about that in my second book called "Singing Hymns Late at Night for My Father." And the title of my most "Irish" book before The Road to Ballyvaughan, Rescue the Perishing, is of course the name of an old hymn. A notable feature of hymns for me, I think, is that they are relatively short. I'd say a typical poem of mine is closer to a hymn than to an oratorio, closer to an aria than to an opera, closer to a jig or a reel or a hornpipe than to one of those sometimes seemingly interminable sean-nós songs. So, my instinct is for the small rather than the large musical canvas, which makes it more difficult for me to talk about the music of a book as opposed to the music of a single poem. For what it's worth, while I was putting together this book I was listening mostly to two different kinds of music, both arguably related to national character. At home, I was listening mostly to early jazz: Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, you name it. On Sunday afternoons, every time they could rouse a quorum, I was out at a local pub listening to friends who are superb musicians play traditional Irish music, almost all instrumental, with the occasional song thrown in for good measure. I can't really say for sure how either of these fed into my poems, but I think they did, and I think maybe the subtle shifts from tune to tune in many an Irish set might have influenced the tonal juxtapositions of individual poems within the larger groupings in the book. But let's face it, those groupings are first of all geographical, except for the middle section, whose poems take place in different counties or no discernible county at all. So the music is there, but it's an undertow. The surface tidal movements of the book are geographical.
Colwell: Following up on that question: the poems themselves are gently yet insistently musical, many of them in traditional forms. Sometimes the juxtaposition of these formal and musical poems creates a deep resonance in the larger collection, like the pairing of the sonnets “With the Bust of Maecenas at Coole” and “To a Countryman from Riverside.” Many of the open form poems in the book also exert a clear metrical cadence and rely on assonance and consonance to create music that elevates the language. Do you set out to write in a certain poetic form, or do you find that some poems move that way in composition or revision? In other words, do you find the form or does the form find you?
Ruark: The two poems you mention face each other partly owing to layout and pagination. I was lucky that way in this book. For instance, all of the two-part poems end up with the parts either fitting on a single page or facing each other on opposite pages. There are other felicities as well, like the two sonnets for my daughters being opposite each other. With regard to the Maecenas and riverside poems, they are together first because they are both set or at least begin in County Galway. But I can see that there are other resonances, the issues of neighborly or brotherly loyalty and internecine violence which plagued both Ireland and ancient Rome. And they are both about "face-offs" of different kinds. When I say, "at least begin" it's because in the riverside poem the scene shifts unannounced and probably undetected in line 5 from Galway to the Dublin quays. The only signal I suppose is the shift from "One night" to "Tonight." That was my first visit to Ireland in 1978 in the company of an old school friend. We found each other not the best of traveling companions, and I spent only three nights on the island before traveling on to England to visit another old school friend, who remarked that I had mistaken Ireland for a green light and gone right through. But enough of that. I want to take mild objection to the use of the term "open form" in describing others of my poems. For me the term is synonymous with "free verse," and although I've written a handful of free verse poems in the past, I haven't done so in years, and I don't think there are any in this book. But you say yourself that even in poems that might be called "open" I'm using various musical devices to lift them out of the domain of prose, and that's true. One of those devices I think is the lengthening of the line for a couple of syllables beyond the standard pentameter. For instance, I've not done a precise count, but I think that in "Written in the Guest Book at Thoor Ballylee" the lines generally run from 11-13 syllables. Once Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell were in the same room and Jarrell was going on about Hopkins and "sprung rhythm" and all that, and Frost just said something like "Oh Jarrell, it's all just 'loose iambic.' " I think I've written a fair amount of loose iambic. But as to your question about the stricter forms, do I find the form or does the form find me, the short answer is: we find each other in the dark. Sometimes I have to go more than halfway toward the form. Other times I can relax and let the form come more than halfway toward me. If that sounds faintly erotic, it's meant to. I think of Seamus Heaney's beautiful command toward the end of his poem "North." "Lie down in the word-hoard." The liaison between the OED, that great neutral hoard of words, and the sonnet, that small selector and refiner and enhancer of words, is a conjugal one. More pedestrianly, I admit to having at times set out to write in specific forms. When I was at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan in the 1980's, I felt the need to work in short forms, so that when the time came for my three-mile afternoon walk into McGinn's pub in Newbliss, I might have got something at least sketched out from start to finish. So I worked on sonnets. I'm happy with a number of poems that came out of that ritual, but I'd rather, under ideal conditions, which never of course exist, have crept up on them more stealthfully. One of my friends who plays in the Irish sessions on Sunday afternoons, a former English teacher at West Point, has expressed a special fondness for my poem called "Session Beginning in Sunlight," since he says he loves the way it becomes a sonnet. I'm not sure if that's true, but it pleases me to think so.
Colwell: A question about compositional process: the book moves across a real geographical landscape, but also across an emotional and temporal landscape of connection, love, friendship, discovery, loss, and aging. How did you choose the poems and the arrangement of the collection? As a reader who knew many of the poems from earlier books, I was particularly struck by how their voices harmonized in this new arrangement. Did you try several different formats or did this one seem to arise organically out of the journey that the book itself takes?
Ruark: Choosing the poems themselves was relatively easy. I just gathered up all the poems I had written "out of Ireland" over four decades that seemed up to the mark. A handful didn't make the cut, sometimes because of quality, sometimes because they seemed out of tune with what the book wanted to be. The arrangement of the poems was more complex in conception, if not quite so difficult in execution. I think my primary or at least initial inspiration was a book I have loved for years, James Wright's Moments of the Italian Summer, first published as a beautiful limited edition by Dryad Press in 1976. That book, by the way, has beautiful black and white drawings by Joan Root. When Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press was designing The Road to Ballyvaughan with his son Daniel, he had no way of knowing that Wright's book had anything to do with mine, and yet he and Daniel chose seven beautiful photographs to precede the book's seven sections. The cover photograph is by our old friend Moira Haden and shows the stone-filled road along The Flaggy Shore in North Clare after a terrible winter storm. Moira and her husband Peter were the owners for years of the elegant Gregan's Castle Hotel up the hill from Ballyvaughan, and when Peter saw the mock-up of the cover, he said, ever the hotelier, "I like that, but what about the car rental people?" So, you can tell without my saying that I have as deep a personal investment in this book as in any book I ever published. But I'm talking now about the look of the book, which certainly contributes to its shape, and not the choices I made in arranging the poems. The first choice was to arrange it geographically, so I assigned the bulk of the poems to the four counties in which they are set. Occasionally, as in the case of "To a Countryman from Riverside," there was some question as to which county the poem belonged in, but I usually settled that by putting it where it started, even if it wandered. "Newbliss Remembered in Newquay" is mostly about County Monaghan, but it begins in Clare, which is where the speaker is talking from, so it goes in Clare. That left me with the five poems in the middle section, which I have given a title which would suggest the movement from the Knocknarea poem to the Newgrange poem. At some point the question occurred to me, if the book is to have a geographical movement, in which direction should it move? Since the conventional movement, which is of course the movement of life, is from east to west, from sunup to sundown, I thought it might be more interesting to go the other way. Then I thought of putting a one-poem section at either end, with the titles Departures and Arrivals, like the signs one sees in airports. The opening poem would be set at Dunmore Head, the westernmost point in Ireland excepting the offshore islands, and the last poem, if it has a setting at all, at least begins in an airplane on the way to Dublin on Ireland's east coast. But of course, it's a sundown rather than a sunup poem, being about aging and a fifty-year marriage, so the book is going two ways at once, which poetry so often does.
Colwell: One of the things that I find remarkable about this collection is that you speak in the voice of the traveler and also the voice of the native-born resident. Your poems have a traveler’s love for the names of places and an acute sensitivity to the details of the landscape and customs. However, the poems also capture the genius of the place, and that bespeaks, I think, a deep spiritual connection of someone who “belongs” to the land. Can you speak to the idea of Ireland as a personal and poetic landscape for you?
Ruark: If I can be said to "belong" to Ireland in even the smallest way, it's because of the extraordinary welcome of those Irish who became my friends and still are, if they are on the planet. The landscape and the history and the artifacts and the music all mean a great deal to me, but I would not have been returning for nearly forty years were it not for the people. I was lucky in that the first Irishman of any stripe I met was the splendid Benedict Kiely, writer, broadcaster, raconteur, all-round man of letters. We met when he arrived as a visitor at the University of Delaware in the spring of 1976. Many people, even in Ireland, don't recognize my name as Irish. Not so Ben Kiely, for no sooner had we been introduced than he recited lines from a poem by Mangan: "O'Ruark, Maguire, those souls of fire, their names are shrined in story-" It turned out he had been assigned an office next to mine. We shared a phone, made a few sorties to the Deer Park Tavern, and began a friendship which lasted until his death in 2007. We said what we couldn't know would be our last farewells on an October afternoon in 2000, when he was laid up in the bedroom at the back of his Donnybrook home, suffering from a back injury incurred while playing football as a boy in the streets of Omagh, but fully enjoying the occasion and the wine and edibles provided by the lovely Frances.
To make clear how lucky I was that Ben was the first living Irish writer I encountered (I had met many dead ones, both great and small, among my books), I'll give you a brief account of the second Irish writer I met. I was on my way back through Ireland on that abortive 1978 trip, and on Ben's recommendation was in Charlie St. George's bar across from the Limerick train station. There was a fellow there in a rumpled topcoat damp from the rain and carrying a battered and bulging briefcase. Shortly after he heard me tell Mr. St. George that Ben Kiely had told me to call in, he sidled over and said, "Do you know anything about contemporary Irish poetry?" I had the presence of mind to say "No," and the next thing he said was "Well, I'm it." It turns out he was a certain Munster poet planning to take the next train to Dublin to see his publisher. When I left an hour or so later, he was calling for another pint and planning to take the next train. This was three years after Seamus Heaney's breakthrough book North had prompted Robert Lowell to call him "the best Irish poet since Yeats." I confess that I scarcely knew Heaney's work at the time, and I may be the only American poet in my generation to own three books by Kiely before buying one by Heaney. But all that was to change. Ben gave me Heaney's address in Strand Road, we exchanged a number of letters and finally met at Bryn Mawr in 1982, when he wrote in my book, as he had doubtless written in the books of many admirers, a treasured bit from Shakespeare, "Our poesy is as a gum which oozes from whence 'tis nourished." Later that year he would meet my mother(!) at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo and write beneath a poem in a magazine (How very like him): "Gib - I know that name from your mother's lovely accents!" We met again on Bloomsday 1983 in Dublin, when I was taken on a memorable twilit tour of the sites and pubs. The next afternoon as the Holy Hour approached in his favored snug in Doheny and Nesbit's, he asked what I might like to do to pass the time between pints. I suggested that we might go out to Glasnevin to see the Jesuit plot where Hopkins lies. He had never been himself, so we went, and thus began a ritual for visiting poets that lasted until at least 2009, when he told the poet he had taken there that he did not want to go back. He came to read for us at Delaware in 1984. By that time something between us was ratified; we met off and on over the decades whenever the Atlantic and his impossible load of obligations would permit, and we last saw him in September 2012 when we waved goodbye to him and Marie as they headed home in a cab from Leeson Street Bridge.
It was when I was with Ben or Seamus that I felt most at home in Ireland. They were friends with each other, of course, but the three of us were never together. The Road to Ballyvaughan is dedicated to the memory of both of them.
Delmarva Public Radio produces a drama program hosted by Delmarva Review's very own Fiction Editor, Hal Wilson. The program, “Delmarva Radio Theatre,” features original radio plays adapted from short stories published in Delmarva Review. Actors include members of The Community Players of Salisbury as well as very talented Delmarva Public Radio staff.
Click below to begin the show...
Used with permission, “Mrs. Morrisette” was first published in the 2010 San Francisco Writers Conference Anthology.
Mrs. Morrisette had taken to sunbathing in the nude. Mr. Morrisette blamed it on those damn Frenchies. One vacation on St. Barts and suddenly Mrs. Morrisette was a nudist.
It all started the first day. After a hotel breakfast of croissants and lukewarm coffee, they had claimed two of the lounge chairs that dotted the narrow strip of sand between the modest Hotel Emeraude and the sparkling Baie de St. Jean.
“If you don’t get to the beach early,” Mr. Morrisette had said during breakfast and again as he hurried his wife down the sandy path, “all the good chairs are taken.”
Mr. Morrisette, glad though he was to be out of the January cold, would have preferred the direct flight to their usual condo in Miami over the twelve-hour three-flight marathon they’d endured to reach that insignificant speck in the French Antilles. Travel is hard enough on people our age without dragging us to some foreign place we’ve never been, he had said to Mrs. Morrisette in the weeks leading up to their winter vacation. Mrs. Morrisette, insisting the island was perfectly lovely and highly recommended, had bought nonrefundable tickets.
Now, stretched out on his lounge chair, marveling at a windsurfer’s scoot across the bay, listening to gulls gah-gah, Mr. Morrisette was inclined to agree: It was lovely. And since nearly everyone spoke English, and their tiny suite in the low-rise hotel was nicer than what they could afford in the States, he was ready to stop complaining. He took off his sandals and anklets and, pointing his toes toward the water, toasted his legs in the sun.
Down the beach was the end of the airport runway where propeller planes, bearing sunburned tourists, popped into the sky. Up the beach, the tony Hotel Eden Roc perched on a promontory, and in front of him, sunbathers promenaded, their feet washed in gentle waves. He pulled a sunglass flip-cover out of his shirt pocket and clipped it to his glasses.
Relishing the sight of women, young and old, slim and plump, strolling the narrow beach, breasts fully exposed to Caribbean sun (perhaps those Frenchies had it right after all), he turned to comment to Mrs. Morrisette on the variety of bosom shapes (“You could do a scientific study, my dear, something on the order of phrenology, using calipers . . .”), only to find his wife pulling down the straps of her navy blue, one-piece, skirted bathing suit. As he watched, his mouth corked with horror, she maneuvered her arms through the straps and folded down the top so that the fleshy rubber cups lay empty and open to the sky like offering bowls on the altar of her plump tummy. Her large white breasts, breasts he, her husband of forty-six years, rarely saw without a Maidenform, were dangling out en plein air.
“This is something I couldn’t do at home, isn’t it, dear?” she said, squirting out more suntan lotion.
“For God’s sake, Emma, cover up. You shouldn’t do it here, either,” he said.
“Lower your voice. Everyone is staring.”
“Of course, they’re staring—you look like something gone wrong out of National Geographic.”
“It’s a French island, dear. Everyone is doing it.”
“My God, what if we run into someone we know?” He peered around the beach.
“Who do we know that would ever come here?” she said. “I can’t tell you how nice it feels. Just lovely.”
Mr. Morrisette opened and shut his mouth.
“Really, dear, you look like a carp.” She lay back down
and shut her eyes.
His wife’s ample bosoms wobbled like poached eggs just delivered to the table. As they settled to rest, the nipples slid to opposite sides, giving her chest a wall-eyed look. Mr. Morrisette twisted away. His temples pulsed and his teeth ached. The ocean didn’t seem so remarkably turquoise and the beach wasn’t the pink the brochure promised. He pulled his golf hat down low. His eyes patrolled the beach.
He squinted. “My God, that’s not the Farleys,” he said.
“Where?” asked Mrs. Morrisette, bolting upright.
“For God’s sake, Emma, lie back down. No, no, it’s not them. Never mind.”
Mrs. Morrisette lay down and fell asleep, her breasts lightly pinking. Mr. Morrisette retrieved binoculars from the basket and spent the morning scanning the beach for familiar faces.
That afternoon, he took a nap under the hum of the ceiling fan while Mrs. Morrisette walked to town. He awoke to the rustle of paper bags.
“Oh, my dear,” Mrs. Morrisette said. “I wish you had come with me. Rows of lovely shops—so continental.” She had bought him a St. Barts T-shirt and, for herself, a pink flowery muumuu and matching bikini.
“You’d never find one in my size at home,” she said.
The next day, Mr. Morrisette wondered aloud why she had paid for both pieces if she only planned to wear the bottom. That night, Mrs. Morrisette didn’t sleep well and in the morning, her breasts were strawberry red. She stood before the mirror, in her flowered bikini bottom, pouting.
“Better than Christmas—a double Rudolph,” Mr. Morrisette said, his hand over his mouth. “You’d better cover up.”
Mrs. Morrisette put on her muumuu, loaded up her basket, and led Mr. Morrisette to the beach. She found two lounge chairs under an umbrella.
“I’ll feel better in the breeze,” she said, unbuttoning
Mr. Morrisette scanned the beach. He felt pressure from his morning coffee.
“I need to go to the room,” he said.
“Fine, dear. I’ll wait here,” Mrs. Morrisette said.
“For God’s sake, cover up while I’m gone. What if someone comes by?”
“Who’s going to bother an old lady? I’ll be fine.” She put her straw hat over her face.
Mr. Morrisette, staring down at the circle of her brim perched next to her round nipples above the ovals of her red breasts, felt his head spin. Below her breasts, his wife’s body spread out wider and wider until tapering in above her knees. It was soft and lumpy, an old couch you had to know to find comfortable. There was a mole above her navel— he’d forgotten that. Notwithstanding today’s standards, it was a perfectly acceptable body, but it didn’t need to be seen.
He moved his chair closer into the shade. His bladder swelled and tightened. He crossed his legs. Tossing aside his magazine, he rolled from one buttock to the other.
“It’s your prostate, dear,” said Mrs. Morrisette, lifting the hat. “Why don’t you pee in the ocean?”
“I hate to pee in the ocean,” he said. “I’d have to swim around so it’s not obvious what I’m doing. I hate to go in the ocean.”
“No one’s paying attention. Don’t be shy.”
“Maybe I should pee against the umbrella pole, since we’re so busy making spectacles of ourselves,” he said.
“Whatever makes you happy, my dear,” said Mrs. Morrisette from under her hat.
Her skin had begun to peel from the tip of her pink nose to the arches of her salmon feet. She had dragged him to the far end of the island, to Colombier Beach where people don’t wear tops or bottoms, and where she had humiliated him by swimming completely naked. He had gotten sick eating shellfish flown in from Brittany and he would have given all the croissants on the island for a bowl of Shredded
Wheat. She had paid $80 to have her hair cut by a man named Christophe who looked and smelled like an anarchist. It was time to go home.
Mr. Morrisette greeted the cold and the need for down jackets as a returning soldier greets his mother’s chicken soup and home-sewn quilts. He walked from room to room in their little house admiring the carpets, the bounce in their mattress, and the view of the house across the street. Mrs. Morrisette, quietly peeling, packed shorts, T-shirts, straw bag, bikini, and muumuu in a cedar box. She stored it under their bed next to boxes containing her bridal gown, her mother’s tablecloths and Mr. Morrisette’s love letters. She went back to grocery shopping, church duties and preparing three meals a day for Mr. Morrisette. On Mondays she did wash, on Tuesdays she dusted, and on Thursdays she vacuumed. Wednesday nights, they played gin rummy with the Delaneys.
Three weeks later, when their tans had turned as pasty as
the February sky and Mrs. Morrisette had stopped scratching
inside her bra, Mr. Morrisette began to rethink the vacation.
He cornered Reverend Chandler after Sunday services.
“St. Barts?” the reverend said. “No, I have never thought of visiting it.”
“It’s a French island, you know,” Mr. Morrisette said. “Quite sophisticated—David Letterman goes every winter.”
The reverend raised his eyebrows.
The ladies at the library, where he volunteered from nine to noon Tuesday through Friday, giggled over his lectures on nonchalant nudity and its effect on moral laxity (he carefully left out Mrs. Morrisette’s participation). Mrs. Buchanan, the head librarian, suggested he write an essay for The Herald. He toyed with headlines: “St. Barts, Rousseauean Paradise” or perhaps a more populist angle: “Island’s Titillations.”
“Travel to exotic locations broadens one’s outlook, wouldn’t you agree?” he commented to a stranger checking out a book on Morocco. “Just last month, the wife and I . . . .”
The first 80-degree day in May, when he came home from the library, lunch wasn’t on the kitchen table. He found his wife on the porch. Using broom handles and striped sheets,
she had rigged a privacy spot on their little deck. She lay on
a lounge chair, wearing the flowered bikini bottom.
“Not here, not at home, Emma,” he pleaded. “What will people think?”
“No one needs to look,” she answered.
Two weeks later, when he caught the O’Donnell boys sneaking around, he knew the word was out. The postman blushed when encountered, and Mrs. Morrisette admitted to being caught when the gasman came to check the meter. One morning at the library filing books in Fiction G-to-J, Mr. Morrisette overheard Darlene Delaney and Mrs. Buchanan in Fiction D-to-F.
“. . . indecent exposure . . . .” Darlene whispered.
“ . . . moral laxity . . . .” Mrs. Buchanan replied.
He left the library early and drove to St. Matthew’s.
Mrs. Morrisette wasn’t pleased when he brought Reverend Chandler home, but at least she was dressed, which made it easier to talk in the kitchen while the reverend waited in the living room.
“How dare you?” she hissed, banging the coffee pot on the counter. “As if I were some Mary Magdalene.”
“Talk with him, Emma,” he begged.
Good manners prevailed. She carried the coffee to the living room. Mr. Morrisette, marooned in the kitchen, rearranged cleaning products. He straightened newspapers in the recycling bin and glued down a loose wallpaper edge. When he heard the reverend leave, he peeked out in time to
see their bedroom door slam.
For three days, he made his own breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but the sheets and brooms came off the deck and each day when he returned home, Mrs. Morrisette was placidly cleaning the house or cooking.
The following week, Mrs. Morrisette presented him with a DVD she had ordered through the mail. Sex over Sixty, the label read above a photo of a lean silver-haired couple prancing through a meadow.
“Where did you get it?” he asked. “I suppose you’re reading dirty magazines now.”
“The Atlantic Monthly,” Mrs. Morrisette replied.
He tried, but it wasn’t going anywhere. He turned out the lights and shrank to his side of the bed. Mrs. Morrisette sighed.
“You must stop, Emma,” he whispered. “There’s no telling where it will lead.”
“There you have it, don’t you, my dear? We’re in agreement on that,” she said.
In June, Mrs. Morrisette suddenly began to lose weight. Mr. Morrisette brought home chopped liver with carrot cake for
Early one Thursday in July, two young men drove up to the house in a red convertible and honked twice. Mrs. Morrisette, who had been fussing around the kitchen, said, “Oh, that’s for me. I’ll be home late, dear.”
Mr. Morrisette stared out the window. The driver was leaning against his car door, wearing tight blue shorts and a flowered shirt that revealed a weight-lifter’s chest. A blond ponytail hung down his back.
Mr. Morrisette trailed his wife into the front hall. When she took the straw bag out of the coat closet, Mr. Morrisette’s stomach turned.
“Where did you find them, Emma?” he asked.
“At church,” she said. “Samson—the blond one—does the flowers. There’s no need to snort. That’s what his mother named him.”
“And where are Samson and his friend taking you?”
“Any particular place on the Cape? I may need to send the police looking for you.”
“Really, dear, they are lovely boys, perfectly harmless. Reverend Chandler has known Samson’s family forever.”
“If you must know, Truro Beach.”
“The nudist beach! How can you . . . with these boys?”
“Not nudist, dear—naturalist. That’s what you call them—us—these days. If you get hungry, dinner is in the refrigerator.”
At the curb, Samson shook Mrs. Morrisette’s plump hand. Leaning over to catch something she was saying, he laughed like a horse with his mouth wide open, his face turned up to the sun. Mr. Morrisette’s cheeks flamed. While Samson put her bag and hat in the trunk, the other young man ushered Mrs. Morrisette into the backseat. She waved as they drove away.
Mr. Morrisette got the map and wrote directions for Truro Beach. He gunned his Chrysler and screeched out of the driveway. Two blocks before the turn onto the highway, he swerved into the library parking lot. When the tires came to rest, he laid his forehead against the steering wheel.
Later that morning, Mrs. Buchanan, the head librarian, asked him to stop talking to himself.
All summer Mrs. Morrisette lost weight. Dr. Martin, the young man who had taken over when Dr. Horne retired, stared at his
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desk when he talked to them. He sent her downtown for more tests. Even Dr. Lipstein, the Harvard specialist, said it was too
late. Treatment would only make matters worse.
“Let it run its course?” Mr. Morrisette protested. “She’s not the Charles River, for God’s sake.” Mrs. Morrisette led him through the pea green corridors to the parking lot where he backed into another car and curses flooded out of his mouth.
From then on, every Wednesday evening after gin rummy with the Delaneys, she loaded up her straw bag. Every Thursday morning, Samson, sometimes with a carload of young men, sometimes alone, pulled up in front of the house. Mrs. Morrisette put on her straw hat and walked to the curb where Samson held the car door open. As the weeks went by, Samson met her closer and closer to the front door, and Mrs. Morrisette leaned on his arm, resting partway down the sidewalk.
In September, Mr. Morrisette stopped going to the library, and they didn’t visit the Delaneys anymore. When Samson rang the doorbell, Mr. Morrisette led him to the bedroom, where Mrs. Morrisette sat, propped up in bed, wearing her muumuu and straw hat. Giving her a white-toothed smile, Samson lifted Mrs. Morrisette and carried her to his car.
One Thursday after they left, Mr. Morrisette drove past the library, onto the highway, and took the Truro Beach road. He found the convertible in a nearly empty parking lot. Slinking behind the dunes he followed a path to wooden stairs leading to the beach. At the top, he crouched and peered down the beach through binoculars. Mrs. Morrisette was lying flat, shaded by an umbrella, a pillow under her head. Samson, his long blond hair blowing loose, stretched beside her reading aloud from a magazine. They were both naked.
Mr. Morrisette’s knees ached and his arms grew tired holding the binoculars. Sweat seeped under his collar and dribbled down his back.
Samson put down the magazine. He picked up Mrs.
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Morrisette in his arms and waded into the ocean. The water
lapped at his calves, up to his thighs, then covered his buttocks and narrow waist. When it reached to where Mrs. Morrisette’s shoulder rested against his chest, he walked through the water, parallel to the shore, past where Mr. Morrisette crouched at the top of the stairs. At last he emerged from the sea, water falling from his chiseled body, and he strode across the sand—he a Neptune, Mrs. Morrisette a waif in his arms. She clung to his chest, and through the binoculars, her breasts were indistinguishable from the loose folds that hung about her torso, its skin robbed of its lovely plumpness. Slowly she curled a feeble arm around the young man’s neck. Samson
bent his head and kissed her on the mouth. Mr. Morrisette dropped the binoculars and ducked his
head between his knees. Bit by bit, as he straightened up, his eyes traveled over his own spindly legs, lingered on his round belly, and settled on his narrow chest. He sprang to his feet and threw the binoculars as far as he could.
Everyone rose as the organ began to play.
The oak doors at the back of the church creaked open.
The congregation gasped.
Mr. Morrisette, standing by the aisle in the front pew, turned. Sun poured over the threshold. The entranceway filled with the pearl blue casket, borne high on the shoulders of six
matching golden steeds. Mr. Morrisette blinked.
No, not steeds, not horses—that was Samson at the left front and somehow he had come up with five sandy-maned friends, all his height. Their thick arms and broad shoulders rippled under gold jackets, their waists nipped in like girls’, and sinewy thighs strained against fabric. Silk shirts opened to show six bronze chests glistening with golden chains.
No one in the church breathed.
Down the aisle, Mrs. Buchanan the librarian looked as
though her head might pop.
As the young men advanced toward the altar, Samson’s lips spread into the most beautiful shining smile Mr. Morrisette had ever seen. Mr. Morrisette looked into the sea of disapproving faces and returned Samson’s smile with a grin so wholly inappropriate for a wife’s funeral that the entire congregation sucked in its breath and wives clutched their husbands.
As the procession passed, Mr. Morrisette’s fingers brushed
the blue casket.
“Perfectly lovely,” he whispered. He reached for his wife’s hand but found only air in the
pew beside him.
“Dearly Beloved, . . .” Reverend Chandler began.
Henry Morrisette bowed his head and wept.
Delmarva Public Radio produces a drama program hosted by Delmarva Review's very own Fiction Editor, Hal Wilson. The program, “Delmarva Radio Theatre,” features original radio plays adapted from short stories published in Delmarva Review. Actors include members of The Community Players of Salisbury as well as very talented Delmarva Public Radio staff.
Click below to begin the show...
Excerpt from Volume 8
A CONVERSATION WITH
SUE ELLEN THOMPSON
With Anne Colwell, Poetry Editor
In her article for the Las Vegas Review Journal entitled "Jenner Might Not Be Transgenderism's
Best Face," Kathleen Parker writes:
I’ve learned more about transgender individuals and their families from the tender poetry of Sue Ellen Thompson than from magazine displays and televised hype. In her latest collection, They, Thompson writes lovingly of her own transgender daughter’s journey and the challenges her evolution poses for three generations of family. I commend her book to those interested in insight over titillation.
Sue Ellen Thompson's poetry collection They offers readers a narrative arc that juxtaposes relationships between grandfather and granddaughter, mother and daughter, father and daughter, and opens for us, with great honesty and love, the struggles and joys of dealing with a transgender child. The poems in this collection are colloquial and crafted, deeply personal and universal. Hilda Raz, the author of What Becomes You urges, "Read it. It may change your life."
Colwell: In his thoughtful essay “Disparate Voices,” Hal Wilson says that you “curate” the postcards from Thomasin to bring together her voice as she writes to her grandfather and your voice as you struggle to come to terms with and accept her movement beyond the “she” of gender. I want to push the metaphor in a slightly different direction and suggest that you orchestrate the voices. One of the things that occurred to me as I read the book was that the postcards are - almost certainly unintentionally – poetic in their voice and their detail, while the poems – so carefully crafted and deeply musical – also evince a plainspoken forthrightness. Would you talk a little bit about how you see these two voices interacting?
Thompson: The decision to include the postcard poems came at the very end, in the last few months before the manuscript was complete. My father had saved them all and given them to me the week before he died, and in rereading them, I became aware of how uncomplicatedly loving my child’s voice was when writing to her grandfather—and how, in contrast, complicated my feelings toward her had been since she passed through adolescence and gradually moved toward a new gender identity (I’m going to refer to Thomasin as “she” here so as not to confuse “them” with the postcards themselves). I didn’t want everything filtered through my voice, as tends to be the case in my poetry. At the same time, I didn’t want to put words in my child’s mouth. So I decided to let the postcards speak for themselves.
But to answer your question, I don’t see the two voices—my own and my child’s—interacting much at all. She is speaking to her grandfather and I am speaking about my father. We don’t really speak to each other much in these poems. It was my hope in writing the book that my father would become the “medium” through which a mother and her child could communicate and find common ground. So in that sense, “orchestrate” is a good word to describe what I was trying to do.
Colwell: You and I have talked some about the question of a poet’s right to explore personal territory that readers might consider off limits or embarrassing. Whenever any writer uses personal experience, we risk exposing ourselves, but also the people in our lives, in ways that may seem problematic or unfair. Would you talk about your experience with balancing the creative necessity of self-expression with the natural desire to protect our own and our loved ones’ privacy?
Thompson: This has always been a huge issue for me, in this book even more so. Because I saw the poems as portraying my child in such a positive light, it never really occurred to me that she/they would be upset about them—the postcard poems in particular. But we exchanged some very painful e-mails in the year leading up to the book’s publication. If I thought that not publishing the book would turn her into my best friend overnight, I probably would have withdrawn it. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case. I also knew that if I didn’t “come out” as the parent of a transgender child as bravely as she had come out to us nine years earlier, I would have missed an opportunity to expand my generation’s understanding of the issues surrounding gender identity. I had broached the subject in conversation with a few close friends, but they all looked puzzled and confessed that they just didn’t “get it.” So I knew I had to take a more public stance—to use poetry as a way of initiating a larger conversation.
I guess my own rule of thumb has been to ask myself, first of all, how “private” the information really is. In most cases I am dealing with well (if not widely) known facts. My child had been very open about her “genderqueer” status for a number of years before this book was published. I also ask myself whether the “private” information in the poem serves a larger and more important truth. In this case, I thought it clearly did, because almost everyone I knew—even as recently as a year ago—was still confusing gender identity with sexual orientation.
This doesn’t mean that it has made my relationship with my adult child any easier. But I knew that if I didn’t publish this book, I would be denying who I am and what I do, which is to write about profound, complex emotions in the context of family and marriage.
Colwell: Many of the poems in They explore how experience changes and challenges language. I’m thinking, for example, of poems like “At 89, My Father Takes Up Swearing,” “Echo Rock,” and the title poem, “They.” One of the things poems can do is to nudge the language to the very edge of the expressible. Like dreams, poems contain the thing that is just beyond the reach of our everyday grammars. Would you talk a little bit about the way that your poems confront learning and “unlearning the rule” about the intersection between language and experience?
Thompson: Deciding how and where to use the plural pronoun “they” when referring to my child in this book posed an enormous challenge. As an English major and sometime teacher of college students, I have always believed in the importance of obeying the rules as far as grammar is concerned. But my child’s request that I refer to her with a plural pronoun caused real difficulties in putting this book together. Some of the poems are written about her as a child, when we all thought of her as “she.” Many others were written about her from my father’s perspective, and I can tell you right now that he never thought of her by any other pronoun, despite her boyish appearance and dress. Many of the poems had been published individually in literary magazines, with no context to explain an unconventional use of pronouns. In the end, I think there were only two or three poems written about her after she came out as transgender that referred to her as “she.” I tried rewriting them using “they” and the result was just too confusing. And given the widespread lack of understanding (at the time) about pronoun preferences and the transgender community, my editor and I decided to stick with the language that would be most readily understood by my audience—primarily parents and grandparents.
So if I was pushed to the edge of the cliff as far as language is concerned, I clearly drew back rather than take the leap. It bothered me at the time and probably always will, but I decided that exploring the issue of my child’s humanity—as opposed to masculinity—was the most important thing. And the best way to do that was to use language in a way that my readers would understand. If I had written these poems five years from now, the outcome might have been quite different.
Colwell: In line with that question, could you also give us some insight into your use of established poetic form in the book? I’m thinking especially of sonnets like “My Father’s Laundry” and “A Birthday Gift,” and also the beautiful - and to me very “Bishop-like” villanelle - “Moving Out.”
Thompson: I am hardly the first poet to use form as a container in which to place difficult emotions. A widowed father’s helplessness, a toddler’s adorably headstrong behavior, a young adult’s final departure from the family home—these are subjects that could so easily lead a writer into the sentimentality trap. Using established forms is the best way I know of to resist this temptation.
I also have lots of off-rhymed ABAB, ABCB, and ABACA poems, as well as a “nonce form” poem called “July 17.” I use rhyme and form to divert my own attention from the subject matter, which might otherwise prove overwhelming.
Colwell: A question about compositional process: the book has a loose narrative arc and the arrangement of the poems moves the reader through important moments in your life with Thomasin and your father. At what point did you conceive of this arc and this arrangement? Did you know before you started writing the poems for the book, or did you realize in the middle of writing these poems that they were moving in this direction?
Thompson: There is definitely a “narrative arc” in the book, although the poems themselves are not arranged chronologically. I did not start thinking about how the poems would be arranged until they were all written and spread in piles across my office floor. I decided that I did not want to foreground the transgender issue, but that I wanted that understanding to dawn gradually on the reader—much as it had on me. I also wanted to place that discovery in the context of other lives—my own, my father’s—that were moving forward even as this understanding began to take shape. I actually use the word “transgender” only once in the book, fairly close to the end. So I wanted the book to present not just a narrative about gender identity but one about family life, with memories of my own childhood and relationship with my parents coexistent with those about raising a very strong-willed and unconventional child, along with others about leaving New England to come to the Eastern Shore just as my father was struggling with the indignities of old age. Above all, I wanted this to be a book about the love of a grandchild for her grandfather, and I wanted the structure of the book to follow that relationship, via the postcards, to its purest expression in the final poem, “Inheritance.”
Colwell: Finally, I want to ask a broader question about poetry. The powerful response that I’ve had to the book and that I’ve seen this book elicit from my students and from fellow readers suggests to me that, despite what many people think, poetry does not or does not have to occupy a rarified world. Do you have any thoughts about the cultural place of poetry going forward?
Thompson: Perhaps because I have spent so little time in the academic world, and perhaps because neither of my parents graduated from college, I have always thought of poetry as something that anyone should be able to read and understand—although I admit it takes an education and some training to appreciate the subtleties of craft. I’ve never understood why more poets don’t write for the people who don’t normally read poetry. To me, the highest compliment a poet can receive is to be told, “I hate poetry, but I loved your book!”