Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Mother

Occasionally I have my poetry students write a "flash poem," a poem drafted quickly on a topic I announce in class on the spur of the moment. Yesterday I took into class my print of James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black" and had them write about it. My own flash poem:

The Mother
is locked in her son's frame. His dark paint
fleshes her out. Her porcelain hands
rest on a black smock's blur. Unblinking,
her gaze fades into the curtains.
She gives off nothing, wrapped in repose.
The bonnet on her severe head
covers a bunched cascade of hair
as muted as her pursed lips.
The geometry of mother and son
extends to infinity, to all the late suppers
and blighted nights. Pungent oils
have hardened on the canvas, brushes
abandoned. The painter has left her
to her own stark desires.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Adam Kirsch reviews The Notebooks of Robert Frost in The New York Sun.
Mick Brown reviews In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton.
More on Frost's notebooks.
Excerpt from Christopher Benfey's review of the Frost notebooks in The New Republic:

The biggest surprise in The Notebooks of Robert Frost, sixty years of private jottings in preparation for poems and prose, is the spectacular profusion of epigrams, aphorisms, and what Frost called "dark sayings." Frost once wrote, in relation to Emerson, that "I don't like obscurity and obfuscation, but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of to time." He remarks in an early notebook entry that "It is best to be flattered ... when your simile passes for a folk saying from a locality." Certain phrases recur many times in these notebooks, as Frost worries them into final shape: "Great thoughts grave thoughts" or (later used as the title for a poem) "Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length." Another saying, repeated at least a dozen times in the course of the notebooks, consists of three stark words, "dark darker darkest"--a sort of ominous refrain for the whole.

Jonathan Kirsch (no relation to Adam) reviews Richard A. Posner's The Little Book of Plagiarism.
Jonathan (no relation to Kirsch) Yardley pans Vikram Chandra's massive Sacred Games, most hyped HarperCollins title of the season.
Michael S. Hopkins reviews Made to Stick, an explanation by the Heath brothers of why some ideas stick and others don't.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Iowa City

Prairie Lights Books - Iowa City
For the past three days I've been in Iowa City where I had a chance to visit the best university art museum and one of the best bookstores (Prairie Lights) I know of. Temperatures Thursday and early Friday were bone-chilling. Thursday morning the reading was -9 on the bank clock on Dubuque Street. By midday Friday, the weather was more humane. Saturday was a gorgeous clear day--perfect for walking in the town and university. I spent time with Cile and David Goding on the northside on Brown Street, several blocks down from where Kurt Vonnegut used to occupy a rambling house on a hill.
Iowa City
A cirrus sky
bleeds blue onto
half-plowed morning,
brings a promise
of corn to the prairie.
The river with frozen fringes
stutters north. Forgotten,
it tongues past
sturdy churches, pleads
with scalloped bridges.
An eagle spans a copse
of barren trees.
In Iowa City, I read Rebecca McClanahan's The Riddle Song, a series of essays about her family. Achingly honest, she writes as well as anyone about the complexities and mixed feelings of families. The collection opens with a piece called simply "Aunt." It concludes as follows, referring to her Aunt Bessie:
Now all these years later I hold her to me--a tribal instinct perhaps. Or perhaps I simply want to give back some of the words to the young woman in the diary. I sit in my study where shelves of books line the green walls. I finger the dictionaries and search for what lies beneath: aunt. From old French, ante, an offshoot, hall leading toward the main room. Latin root, amma: mother. Or amare: to love. As in amigo, as in amour. As in amateur, one who works for the bare love of it.
Rebecca McClanahan will visit our campus on Thursday for meetings with students and an evening reading. I look forward to seeing her again so that I can tell her how much I admire her poetry and nonfiction.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tony Huggins

Tony Huggins in Party Mode - circa 1990

Tony Huggins in His Office - circa 2004
Tony Huggins retired from the Francis Marion University English Department last spring after spending most of his career there. We're still feeling the aftershocks of his sudden death by heart attack on January 9 while with his wife Marion on the beach near their Pawleys Island house. This was all the more stunning given Tony's fitness, his regular cycling, walking, and running. I put out a request to our department and various people formerly at FMU for written memoirs about Tony. 20 people responded, and with the help of Beckie Flannagan, I put them together in a bound album for Marion. Here's the piece I wrote about Tony:
I knew Tony before I knew anyone else at Francis Marion College. We both took Carolyn Matalene’s Composition Theory class at USC in 1983 and often went to the Humanities Building cafĂ© for coffee afterwards. I had just enrolled in a Ph.D. program, while Tony was commuting from Darlington twice a week, taking courses toward his own degree. Right off, I admired Tony’s intelligence coupled with his finely-tuned bullshit detector. If he thought a reading assignment was off-base--or didn’t square with his teaching experience-- he said so and didn’t mind explaining why.

We became friends partly because we were the oldest students in the class but also because we were both graduates of Davidson College and had that background in common. I discovered that he had maintained a close friendship with Douglas Houchens, one of my Davidson art professors. Although our years at Davidson didn’t quite overlap, we shared numerous memories and acquaintances. From the outset, Tony was evasive about his post-undergrad activities in the sixties when he was involved in military intelligence, but he told me all about his weekend at Woodstock in 1969.

Arriving at Francis Marion for a job interview in 1989, I was eager to talk with Tony. In those days, job candidates were subjected to a gauntlet of small-group interviews in faculty offices, along with meetings with the Department Chair, the President, and the Vice President for Academic Affairs (now the Provost). For my interview in Tony’s office, I stood up the whole time; there was no room to sit down. Nath Dresser was there, and the three of us had a good conversation about music. I decided Francis Marion was a place I could settle into.

Tony always loved talking about music, art, film, and literature. He had little patience for anything that distracted him from those fundamental interests. Even when our paths crossed in the gym locker room, we wound up talking about Raging Bull or Mystic River, Atonement or The Lovely Bones.

Tony’s well-formed opinions about teaching, and his skepticism about composition assessment—in fact, his skepticism about many classroom practices—were often maddening. He had the audacity to ask why we were collecting data in this way or that, to ask how we knew our test results were valid. He would ask why this book was preferable to that one, why it was important to collect student portfolios. Tony was a gadfly, and his querulous manner drove me crazy, especially when I chaired the Freshman Writing Committee. But underlying this attitude was a desire for rigor, an aversion to wasted effort, and a commitment to serving our students well.

Tony’s real value to the Department came out during interviews with job candidates. When the rest of us were tossing softballs to our prospective colleagues, Tony would wind up and throw a nasty curve that just nicked the outside corner of the plate. The interviewee would invariably look startled as if to say, “Where did that come from?” The good ones could handle it. Those who struck out wound up looking for work elsewhere.

Tony once did us the great favor of asking a modern drama candidate to name her favorite Arthur Miller play (not exactly a curve ball). When she paused for agonizing seconds and responded, “The Iceman Cometh,” it was game over for her, and we went on to hire Jon Tuttle, who was fortunately able to name a play that had actually been penned by Miller.

For years, Tony had an inflated green plastic dinosaur hanging from his office ceiling. By the time he retired, it was faded but showed no sign of deflating. I asked Tony if I could have it to hang in the Faculty Lounge, and he gladly donated it. It hangs there now.

In some ways Tony was a dinosaur—a bit larger than life, holding the line on old traditions and standards, skeptical of new fangled technology and teaching, wedded to the old liberal arts values that he and I soaked up at Davidson College. But mostly, Tony’s ideas were new, different, unpredictable, probing, challenging. These are the characteristics that drew our best students to his classes and kept them seated for hours on the pastel blue chair in his office, talking with him beneath the dinosaur, surrounded by the books that Tony loved.