For Tributes, Conjunctions invited a number of contemporary writers to pay homage to American literary masters who made something possible for them—whether that was the act of writing itself, writing a certain book, writing in a particular manner, or living in a way that was consonant with the act of writing. This is an anthology of personal enthusiasms, a colloquium Whitman might have seen as a progress of vistas. John Sayles offers an appreciation of Nelson Algren, Robert Creeley of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Nathaniel Mackey on Walt Whitman. And then there’s Rick Moody on John Cheever, Ben Marcus on Dr. Seuss, Mona Simpson on Henry James, Ana Castillo on Anaïs Nin, Anne Waldman on Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis on Edward Dahlberg. All in all, forty-five authors share compelling tales of their adopted literary parentage.
About the Author
Martine Bellen’s most recent collection of poetry is Wabac Machine (Furniture Press Books). Her other books include GHOSTS! (Spuyten Duyvil Press) and The Vulnerability of Order (Copper Canyon Press). Lee Smith has published twelve novels and four fiction collections, including the forthcoming Guests on Earth (Algonquin Books). She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award.
Bradford Morrow (b. 1951) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, editor, and author of children’s books. He grew up in Colorado and traveled extensively before settling in New York and launching the renowned literary journal Conjunctions. His novel The Almanac Branch was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and for Trinity Fields, Morrow was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Academy Award in Literature. He has garnered numerous other accolades for his fiction, including O. Henry and Pushcart prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College.
Martine Bellen’s most recent collection of poetry is Wabac Machine (Furniture Press Books). Her other books include GHOSTS! (Spuyten Duyvil Press) and The Vulnerability of Order (Copper Canyon Press).
Read an Excerpt
American Writers on American Writers Conjunctions, Vol. 29
By Bradford Morrow, Martine Bellen, Lee Smith
ConjunctionsCopyright © 1997 CONJUNCTIONS
All rights reserved.
Sterling Brown: A Southern Man
On sunday afternoons in St. Louis, particularly when forsythia, honeysuckle and dogwood blossoms were ebulliently infusing the air with scents so different from those of hatred, hunger, heartbreak and forlorn ennui, my mother would inevitably jump into "Strong Men":
They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.
They broke you in like oxen,
They scourged you,
They branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers with bastards ...
They taught you the religion they disgraced.
Keep a-inchin' along
Lak a po' inch worm ...
Bye and bye
I'm gonna lay down dis heaby load ...
Walk togedder, chillen
Dontcha git weary....
The strong men keep a-comin' on
The strong men git stronger.
They point with pride to the roads you built for them,
They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.
They put hammers in your hands
And said — Drive so much before sundown.
Ain't no hammah
In dis lan',
Strikes lak mine, bebby,
Strikes lak mine.
They cooped you in their kitchens,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.
Me an 'muh baby gonna shine, shine
Me an 'muh baby gonna shine.
The strong men keep a-comin' on
The strong men git stronger ...
They bought off some of your leaders
You stumbled, as blind men will ...
They coaxed you, unwontedly soft-voiced....
You followed a way.
Then laughed as usual.
— from "Strong Men"
No number of bars of Dvorák from my violin, my brother's Frederick Douglass or my sister's Dunbar or the baby's forced phonetic reconstruction of Baker's "La Vie en Rose" compared in stamina or passion with my mother, Ellie's, passionate encounters with Sterling Brown, graced unobtrusively with my father on bongo drums.
Why am I returning to the experiences of a prepubescent Negro child on the banks of the Mississippi, luckily way upriver from Mississippi? This is, as I imagine Jefferson Davis or Thomas Jefferson would say, a matter of honor and authenticity, bloodlines and legitimacy.
While Dvorák (with his New World Symphony), Douglass, Dunbar and Baker remain icons in American culture, falling off the lips of the tenuous day, quasars of the Mothership, Sterling Brown is unique: an honorable craftsman whose handling of the voices and feelings, perceptions of our people could only be questioned by the spirits, the ancestors and the collective unconscious of what Henry Dumas called African pageantry.
I found me a cranny of perpetual dusk.
There for the grateful sense was pungent musk
Of rotting leaves, and moss, mingled with scents
Of heavy clusters freighting foxgrape vines.
The sun was barred except at close of day
When he could weakly etch in changing lines
A filigree upon the silver trunks
Of maple and of poplar. There were oaks
Their black bark fungus-spotted, and there lay
An old wormeaten segment of gray fence
Tumbling in consonant long forgot decay.
Motionless the place save when a little wind
Rippled the leaves, and soundless too it was
Save for a stream nearly inaudible,
That made a short stay in closewoven grass
Then in elusive whispers bade farewell.
— from "Arc of Sons"
Dvorák reaped his soul from ours, Douglass turned his back in disgust on us, Dunbar resented our language, which created the very foundations of his genius. He even persuaded his wife, Alice Dunbar Nelson, to be ashamed that his sonnets were not the "Talk of the Town." And La Bakaire made up almost as many versions of herself as Brown has characters, women like Clareel, even Frankie.
FRANKIE AND JOHNNY
Oh Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh Lordy how they did love!
— Old Ballad
Frankie was a halfwit, Johnny was a nigger,
Frankie liked to pain poor creatures as a little 'un,
Kept a crazy love of torment when she got bigger,
Johnny had to slave it and never had much fun.
Frankie liked to pull wings off of living butterflies,
Frankie liked to cut long angleworms in half,
Frankie liked to whip curs and listen to their drawn out cries,
Frankie liked to shy stones at the brindle calf.
Frankie took her pappy's lunch week-days to the sawmill,
Her pappy, red-faced cracker, with a cracker's thirst,
Beat her skinny body and reviled the hateful imbecile,
She screamed at every blow he struck, but tittered when he curst.
Frankie had to cut through Johnny's field of sugar corn
Used to wave at Johnny, who didn't 'pay no min —
Had had to work like fifty from the day that he was born,
And wan't no cracker hussy gonna put his work behind —
But everyday Frankie swung along the cornfield lane,
And one day Johnny helped her partly through the wood,
Once he had dropped his plow lines, he dropped them many times again —
Though his mother didn't know it, else she'd have whipped him good.
Frankie and Johnny were lovers; oh Lordy how they did love!
But one day Frankie's pappy by a big log laid him low,
To find out what his crazy Frankie had been speaking of;
He found that what his gal had muttered was exactly so.
Frankie, she was spindly limbed with corn silk on her crazy head,
Johnny was a nigger, who never had much fun —
They swung up Johnny on a tree, and filled his swinging hide with lead,
And Frankie yowled hilariously when the thing was done.
There are literary architectural reconstructions of Shakespeare's England, Dante's hell and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. While Dickens's London and de Maupassant's terrifying yet elegant Paris can be identified, even visited. But to know the worlds of Sterling Brown, I only have to walk a few miles in the South Side of Chicago, the lonely roads outside Allendale, South Carolina, and the byzantine worlds of black ten-year-olds in Red Hook, and Sterling Brown manifests the essence, not maquettes of a people.
THE NEW CONGO
(With no apologies to Vachel Lindsay)
Suave big jigs in a conference room,
Big job jigs, with their jobs unstable,
Sweated and fumed and trembled 'round the table
Trembled 'round the table
Sat around as gloomy as the watchers of a tomb
Tapped upon the table
Boom, Boom, Boom.
With their soft pigs' knuckles and their fingers and their thumbs
In a holy sweat that their time had come
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
How can I go back to being a bum.
Then I had religion, then I had a vision
I could not turn from their anguish in derision.
Then I saw the Uncle Tom, creeping through the black
Cutting through the bigwoods with his trousers slack
With hinges on his knees, and with putty up his back.
Then along the line from the big wig jigs Then I heard the plaint
of the money-lust song.
And the cry for status yodeled loud and long
And a line of argument loud and wrong
And "Bucks" screamed the trombones and the flutes of the
"Bucks" screamed the newly made Ph.D. Doctors
Utilize the sure-fire goofie dust powder
Garner the shekels
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, booma.
Tremolo, mendicant implorations
From the mouths of Uncle Toms
To the great foundations.
"Jack is a good thing
A goddamn good thing
The only bad thing
Is there ain't enough.
Boom, fool the whitefolks
Boom, gyp the jigaboos
Boom, get the prestige
Strut your stuff."
Listen to the cry of the Negro mass
Down to its uppers, down on its ass.
Hear how the big jigs fool 'em still
With their services paid from the white man's till.
Listen to the cunning exhortations
Wafted to the ears of the big foundations
Blown to the big white boss paymasters
Faint hints of far-reaching grim disasters.
"Be careful what you do
Or your Mumbo-jumbo stuff for Sambo
And all of the other
Bilge for Sambo
Your Mumbo-Jumbo will get away from you.
Your Bimbo-Sambo will revolt from you.
Better let Uncle Tombo see it through,
A little long green at this time will do...."
Not unlike Guillén Leon, and Aimé Césaire, even Luis Palos Matos and Julia de Bargus, Brown was committed to humanity in spite of its denigration of such as evidenced in "Side by Side":
A nigger killed a white man in the neighborhood
The nigger was shot up and then hung out
For the blood to dry, a black sponge dripping red.
John, you were in the mob, and what did it get you?
The killed man is just as dead as the lynched,
And both busted hell wide, wide open,
And side by side, Lord, side by side.
So Brown recognized the Africanization of our hemisphere long before we as a people, or a nation recognized him. Brown paid homage to the heroes Nat Turner, Crispus Attucks McKoy, in the same breath as Garvey & Du Bois.
I sing of a hero,
Known by the name
Of Crispus Attucks McKoy.
Born, bred in Boston,
Cousin of Trotter,
Godson of Du Bois.
No monastic hairshirt
Stung flesh more bitterly
Than the white coat
In which he was arrayed;
But what was his agony
On entering the drawing-room
To hear a white woman
Say slowly, "One spade."
— from "Crispus Attucks McKoy"
This lack of self-consciousness, this visceral and aesthetic commitment to the lilt of our tongues, the swing of our hips and the brilliance of our minds and improvisational acuity is particular to Sterling Brown for his generation. He was bothered not so much by who he was, or who we were, but that we could not see him, we could not hear: I offer a quote from Sterling Brown's own "Honey Mah Love":
We who have fretted our tired brains with fears
That time shall frustrate all our chosen dreams
We are rebuked by Banjo Sam's gay strains,
Oh Time may be less vicious than he seems;
And Troubles may grow weaker through the years —
Nearly as weak as those Sam told us of, —
Sam, strumming melodies to his honey love;
Sam, flouting Trouble in his inky lane.
Oh, I doan mess wid' trouble....
As noted in Neruda's memoirs, the coal miners reciting his poems to him would also have made Sterling Brown's heart sing.CHAPTER 2
Chicago Guy: Nelson Algren
I read a lot as a kid, indiscriminately. In the fifth grade I might be reading Treasure Island, The Black Stallion, The Caine Mutiny, White Fang, Fail Safe and whatever World War II combat memoirs and Readers' Digest condensed novels my parents had kicking around the house, often simultaneously. I wrote stories as well, mostly intentional or unintentional parodies of books I'd read or movies and TV shows I'd seen. But the idea that a writer was something you could be, that I might write something that could get out in the world and be read by other people, was fairly late in coming.
I think I was in junior high school, twelve or thirteen years old, when I came across Nelson Algren's Somebody in Boots. Typical of my scattered approach to reading, I picked it up because I saw on the jacket that he had written A Walk on the Wild Side and I really liked Brook Benton's title song from the movie (I hadn't yet seen the movie, which falls apart after the opening titles by Saul Bass). I had read Grapes of Wrath at this point, and my parents had told me stories about the Depression era, but Algren's book brought it alive to me in a more visceral way — it is an epic of powerlessness. The protagonist — poor, ignorant, small — has some humane impulses, but it is clear they will only be a liability in the mean world he lives in. There are brief glimpses of hope, moments of peace, but then somebody in boots stomps in and the fun is over.
I don't think I set foot in a bookstore or knew such a thing existed (my parents were teachers and brought stuff home from school but I can't remember them buying a book) until I was in college. So I began to dig into the card catalogues of the local libraries looking for more things by Algren. I read his short stories, a few of his essays and reportage. I'd never been to Chicago, never played poker or bet on the horses, but somehow his world was very familiar to me. The books were funny, not because Algren made fun of the characters, but because the characters understood the humor of desperation. A story like "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," in which world-weary cops banter with the night's haul of murderers, drunks and thieves as one by one they face the hard glare of a police line-up, has a bizarre, stand-up comedy feeling, where all the participants, cops and criminals, understand that the joke is on them. Algren was a devotee of Hemingway, but his characters barely kept up the facade of living according to a code. They tried to survive day by day and the best and most compelling of them knew their own weaknesses. There is no second chance in Hemingway, whereas Algren's characters often hit bottom halfway through the book, then have to take a good look at each other and push on.
Reading Algren was not unlike reading Faulkner in that I came to have a geographical impression of the world he created, meeting characters central to one story on the periphery of another, finding themes repeated and expanded upon. But Algren's world, mostly city-dwelling immigrants and small-time operators, was more familiar to me than Faulkner's guilt-ridden Mississippi. The cruelty Algren's characters showed to each other was more venal and immediate, not based on some deep historical sin but on everyday human frailty, deceit, selfishness and longing. He is wise to his characters but not dismissive, his sentiment tempered with irony. When the rough edges he worked so well began to gentrify he moved from Chicago but never really found another home. He is one of those writers, like Faulkner or Cheever or Raymond Chandler or Zane Grey, who owns a piece of turf in the American imagination. You think "Nelson Algren's Chicago" and it's sure, I know exactly — there.
Beside entering his world, I got something else from reading Algren. It was the realization that, hey, they let this guy get away with this stuff, recognizable human behavior, people with warts and humor and appetites, and somebody typed it up in a book and got it out in the world. Maybe I could do something like that. I remember reading a book with the dedication "For Nelson Algren — who does not know me from Adam and should not be held responsible." The people who influence you to write aren't necessarily who you're going to write like, but the fact of their existence, of the existence of their characters, the spirit in them, opens up a possibility in your mind. There have been a lot of writers whose work I got into later that really knocked me out, writers who brought me into worlds unknown and opened up areas of style and technique that helped me get my own act together. But the one who jump-started me from reader to writer was Nelson Algren, who I never met and should not be held responsible.CHAPTER 3
I have been tracking her for well over fifty years, since the good sisters instructed me that there lived somewhere — in Maine or was it New Mexico? — a wonderful lady who wrote stories for Catholics. In their zeal to lure us away from comics, movies and our favorite radio shows, they elevated Willa Cather to the state of blessed, never suspecting that in Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, it was the culture of Catholicism in America that interested her, the organizing drama of its rituals, the missionary's overlay of European morals and manners on native life. And — shocking to say — Cather, with renewed desire (the secular desire of most writers), was, in these late works, finding her way into new forms:
In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives, it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it — but to touch and pass on. I felt that such writing would be a kind of discipline in these days when the "situation" is made to count for so much in writing, when the general tendency is to force things up.
— Letter to Commonweal, November 23, 1927
I see now that Cather was finding her way further into legend, for her novel she would claim as her first real work, My Ántonia, is partitioned into tales that have become legendary to the narrator, but I hadn't a clue when I borrowed that novel from the public library and never thought why my Ántonia? Because she is the girl, the woman that Jim Burden makes into legend. Because the teller of the tale lays claim, possesses his material — or hers — and this burden may, or may not, be unburdened by the telling. Fitzgerald, who admired Cather, was drawn to this narrative frame when giving Nick Carraway the first and last say in his Gatsby. Nick's performance in these passages is grandiloquent. He speaks a rhetoric at once beautiful and defensive. Jim Burden, Cather's early narrator of what is actually a disturbing American pastoral, cannot import his romantic view into the present.
Excerpted from Tributes by Bradford Morrow, Martine Bellen, Lee Smith. Copyright © 1997 CONJUNCTIONS. Excerpted by permission of Conjunctions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- EDITORS' NOTE
- Ntozake Shange, Sterling Brown: A Southern Man
- John Sayles, Chicago Guy: Nelson Algren
- Maureen Howard, My Willa
- Bradford Morrow, The Emerson Madrigal
- Cole Swensen, For M. Moore
- Robert Creeley, Old Poets, Old Poems: Edwin Arlington Robinson
- Jim Lewis, Melville and the Art of Saying No
- Amiri Baraka, Black Reconstruction: Du Bois & the U.S. Struggle for Democracy & Socialism
- Eli Gottlieb, Panels for Nathanael
- Joanna Scott, How to Tell a Lie, by Edgar Allan Poe
- Peter Straub, 45 Calibrations of Raymond Chandler
- Paul Metcalf, Ezra Pound: A Seereeyus Precursor
- Ellen McLaughlin, On Lillian Hellman
- Anne Waldman, Language, Voice, Beat, Energy in the Poetry: Jack Kerouac
- Lynne Tillman, Edith Wharton: A Mole in the House of the Modern
- Paul West, The Sound of the Fury: Faulkner's Aerial Surf
- Elaine Equi, Frank O'Hara: Nothing Personal
- Kevin Young, Langston Hughes: "If You Can't Read, Run Anyhow!"
- Ben Marcus, Chemical Seuss
- Carole Maso, A Novel of Thank You (for Gertrude Stein)
- Lisa Shea, Divining Stein
- Mona Simpson, Henry James
- Will Alexander, Bob Kaufman: The Footnotes Exploded
- Rick Moody, John Cheever and Indirection
- Nathaniel Mackey, Phrenological Whitman
- Sven Birkerts, Elizabeth Bishop's Prose: Atmospheres of Identity
- Ana Castillo, Anaïs Nin, All the Rest Is Origami
- Siri Hustvedt, Gatsby's Glasses
- Quincy Troupe, The Visible Man: Ralph Ellison
- Dale Peck, Shirley Jackson: "My Mother's Grave Is Yellow"
- C. D. Wright, Frank Stanford, Of the Mulberry Family: An Arkansas Epilogue
- Phillip Lopate, The Strange Case of Dr. Eiseley
- Steve Erickson, Henry Miller: Exhibitionist of the Soul
- Mac Wellman, Bierce
- Lawrence Osborne, Frederick Prokosch
- Diane Williams, To Dickinson
- Robert Kelly, Robert Duncan & The Right Time
- Victor Hernández Cruz, Encounters with an Americano Poet: William Carlos Williams
- Catherine Bowman, Sylvia's Honey
- Lydia Davis, Broaching Difficult Dahlberg
- Norma Cole, For Lorine Niedecker
- David Means, Now Let Us Praise James Agee
- Jonathan Williams, Kenneth Patchen: "Hiya, Ken Babe, What's the Bad Word for Today?"
- Joyce Carol Oates, The Visionary Art of Henry David Thoreau
- Donald Revell, Joyful Noise: The Gospel Sound of Henry D. Thoreau
- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND PERMISSIONS
- NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS