Sunday, March 08, 2009

George Kennan

I've been maintaining this blog long enough (albeit erratically) that certain subjects and motifs have begun to repeat themselves. Yesterday was the second time I've offered up something about John Monro, and today I turn back to George Kennan, whom I wrote about back in 2007. Each time I plan an overseas trip I read from Kennan's incomparably honest and astute Sketches from a Life, a selection from the journals he accrued over his 50 years as a diplomat. In the "Preface," he explains,
The pieces were written, for the most part, only when traveling. For this there was good reason. At home, in the performance of daily professional and personal duties, there was normally no time for this sort of thing; beyond which, this sort of writing required, as mentioned aabove, the novelty and treshness of first impression. You would not write this way about things you saw or experienced every day. Familiarity deprived such scenes, as it did people, of their mystery and their magic. (xi)

Kennan's musings about people and places are worth reading in their own right; I also hope that his descriptions and insights, while far more lucid than mine could be, will prompt me to be a more observant and engaged traveler--not someone who scurries hurriedly from museum to cathedral to monument, brushing across the surface of it all without pausing to think about it. Here is a typical passage, written in 1978:

In Stockholm, throughout the evening, I was being made conscious of touches in the scene--in the light sky; in the ponderous Germanic apartment building that housed W.'s office downtown; in the milling-about of the crowds on the paths of the Tivoli, making the most of the brief northern summer; in the vegetation; in the coolness of the night breezes--touches that reminded me that I was separated only by a relatively small body of water of Riga and Reval and the scenes of my youth. And I was prodded from inside with jabs of nostalgia which no one else could ever understand--nostalgia for that bleak Baltic landscape, for its long dark winters and for the wonder of its brief fleeting summers, for the mystery of the white nights, the sense of proximity of something intensely beautiful and marvelous, the thirst for it, and the awareness that it was not to be.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

John U. Monro

Yesterday I had lunch with Toni-Lee, a friend from Boston who is working on a biography of John U. Monro, who died in 2002 at age 89 and was one of the most remarkable men I've ever known. John and I were colleagues for five years at Tougaloo College, 1978-83. Following his service as a WWII navel officer on the carrier "Enterprise," John held various high-level administrative positions at Harvard before leaving Boston to begin working in historically black colleges, Miles (in Birmingham) and then Tougaloo (in Jackson). His extensive New York Times obituary indicates his prominence and the unanimous respect accorded him by all who knew of his work. Last October, a portrait of Monro was unveiled at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Toni-Lee has been working on the biography for several years and has traveled around the country interviewing his fellow naval officers, university colleagues, and friends. She has conducted research and interviews at Harvard, Tougaloo, and Miles and has spent days in California poring over papers and memorabilia with John's daughter, who coincidentally was a classmate of my wife at Mount Holyoke in the 1960's and has been a big help in the bio project. Toni-Lee brought along a batch of papers and photos to show me. Today she's scheduled to interview a former Tougaloo colleague and friend (now living in Columbia) who also worked closely with John. I wish Toni-Lee the best and am eager to see this project come to fruition.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

John Cheever

A review of a new collection of John Cheever stories and a new bio by Blake Bailey has sent me back to the troubled suburbanite, my favorite American short story writer. Some of his stories, such as "The Country Husband," I can read again and again. Likewise, his journals and letters fascinate me for their brutal honesty and craftsmanship. His novels have never interested me as much, though I liked Falconer pretty well.
Birthday calculator, providing extensive information on your date of birth

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Debra A. Daniel

Every other Thursday evening, when I can make it to Doc's Gumbo Grille down in Columbia's Vista across the street from the State Capitol, I take my guitar and harmonicas and join the miscellaneous group of musicians who gather for what is dubbed a "bluegrass jam," though the songs often range far afield from bluegrass. Some of the playing tests my musical limits; on occasion, I struggle to keep up. But I always have a good time, even if the jammers packed onto the cramped stage often outnumber the folks in the audience dining on Doc's delicious creole fare.

Two of the mainstays in the group are Jack McGregor and Debra Daniel, who are members of a band that plays regularly around town. I've know Debra at least since 1994, the year we were both on the South Carolina Readers Circuit--a group of 8 poets and fiction writers chosen by the Arts Commission to be available for readings around the state. Last year, we invited Debra to visit the University as a guest writer. Her work (both fiction and poetry) is terrific. She's recently had a chapbook (As Is) published by Main Street Rag. See sample poems and author bio here.

The collection is filled with references to young love, old love, parents, and the rural south in which the poet grew up. Good poets must skirt sentimentality without falling victim to it, and Debra does that well, aided by humor and razor-sharp irony, as seen in this excerpt from "Hymn of Invitation:"

When the lights dimmed for the sermon,
he pulled a pen from his pocket, leaned forward,
drew on the length and meat of his thumb,
a hula girl; and as his knuckles bent and swiveled,
she danced a crimson sway.

His gaze angled at me, brown eyes
so humid, I wanted to lift my hair, let air cool
the nape of my neck. He straightened, crossed
his arms so that his hands were hidden. We sat
not quite touching, the service edging to invitation.

And then his index dinger slow and sure as sin
found and grazed my sleeveless skin,
tracing a line down and up, down and up;
while the girl he had drawn lay folded
and curled tight against his palm.
Profile of Debra on Southern Artistry site, including excerpts from her writing
"Impressionists" (flash fiction from Smoke Long Quarterly) and an interview with Debra