WRITER AS ILLUSIONIST
Lighter in spirit than the first part.
QUESTION: Will religious symbols ward off writers?
Holy water does not affect writers other than it gets them wet, and getting them wet might really aggravate them. The same is true of religious symbols. Simply holding them up in front of a writer will do nothing.
Beating or hitting the writer with these religious symbols is a different story.
John grabs the THE WRITER AS VAMPIRE sign from the easel. Below it is one that reads WRITER AS ILLUSIONIST.
I’ve learned, from years in advertising, to do a little test-marketing before jumping into projects with both feet, so when a publisher I’ve known for a long time asks me what I’m up to these days, I tell her I’m putting together a presentation called…
John delivers this title directly to the audience with over-the-top enthusiasm.
“Unearthing the Writer as Vampire.”
Now more reflective.
When she doesn’t even slightly acknowledge this, I realize with a start that what I have is a “guy idea” that women (who are a high percentage of the writers I come in contact with) will not be intrigued by. But is this a subject restricted to males? I remember Lorine Niedecker and my first experience with publishing.
John now very much in reminiscent mode.
A little over 20 minutes down the road from where I live—and 60 years ago—there was a woman who scrubbed floors in the Fort Atkinson hospital and spent much of her life beside a flooding river in a barren cottage without electricity or running water. Unknown to those who came in contact with her, she also wrote relentless poetry which today is included in the Norton Anthology alongside such literary giants as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams.
Fog thick morning–
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
Now there are various small collections of her poems and two books of correspondence she had over a 20-year period of time, but nothing that correlates her life with her work. I figure this is something I can handle and since we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there may be a marketing opportunity for a short, inexpensive paperback that I publish myself. I call the book America’s Greatest Unknown Poet.
John holds up a copy of the book.
Lorine tells us, “I had set myr sights beyond Blackhawk Island…and my connection to that other world was Louis Zukofsky—a young New York intellectual making waves.”
Here’s how Zukofsky’s friend, Jerry Reisman, described my first meeting with Louis:
John dons an old fashioned cap.
“In the early 1930s I lived in the South Bronx with my parents and was a physics major at CCNY. Louis Zukofsky and I were close friends. Frequently, on weekends, I rode the subway to his Manhattan apartment and did my homework there.
“I had read most, if not all, of his letters to and from Lorine Niedecker. Neither Louis nor I had ever met her and we both looked forward to her impending visit. I believe Louis expected her to stay, at most, two weeks. The year was 1933.
John looks at an imagined Lorine Niedecker.
“When Lorine arrived, she and Louis exchanged shy greetings and Louis introduced her to me. Of course she already knew about me from Louis’s letters. Later, when she began to unpack her things and Louis saw what she had brought—an ironing board and an iron, for example—he concluded that she was prepared to stay a long time. And…
John holds up an iron.
…he looked a bit worried. He had not planned to have a long-term live-in relationship with Lorine.”
John paces around a bit. Then nervously comes back to the audience.
Well Louis Zukofsky and her hit it off OK. In fact, she became pregnant.
Lorine wanted to keep the child, but Louis insisted that she terminate the pregnancy.
She pleaded, “I’ll have the child in Wisconsin, raise it on Blackhawk Island and never bother Louis for support money or anything else!”
But, Louis was adamant.
Nothing remained but to find a reliable abortionist and the money to pay for the operation.
One of Reisman’s cousins recommended a female doctor. Her fee was $150—a lot of money in those days.
Lorine got the money from her father.
After the operation, the doctor revealed that the patient had been carrying twins.
Lorine named them ‘Lost’ and ‘Found.’
Physically, she recovered quickly, but…
…In her poem about Mary Shelly, she wrote:
Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
before she married?
Who was Mary Shelley?
She read Greek, Italian
She bore a child
and yet another child
John removes his cap, he is now back to the present thinking about Niedecker in the past.
Do we men realize what women go through?
Mary Shelly gave birth to four children, and only one of them survived to adulthood. Her first died eleven days after its birth. The next, born a year after, died of malaria, and a third perished from dysentery the following year. During her fifth pregnancy, Mary miscarried and nearly lost her life.
And then there were Lorine’s twins. She ached for them all the years of my life
As I am researching my America’s Greatest Unknown Poet book I discover that Lorine went back to Wisconsin.
And Zukofsky? He eventually got married and had a son, Paul, by his new wife. During the period of his son’s childhood, Zukofsky’s letters are full of accounts of Paul’s antics. Lorine used these anecdotes to write poems about Paul, which also suggest an embedded homage to Zukofsky.
Louis feared she wanted to lay claim to Paul with her words. Perhaps she did.
John plodding ahead.
She continued to exchange letters with him over the next ten years, often more than one a week—a correspondence that is for each of them, their greatest output.
John becomes deeply distracted.
No wonder her novel Frankenstein showed Mary Shelley ‘s real-life preoccupation with pregnancy, labor, paternity, and death. In 1815, shortly after the death of her first baby, Mary Shelley recorded this entry in her journal: “Dreamed that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived.”
And your work, Lorine, showed a preoccupation with Louis’s son, Paul.
You sent Paul a book and said you hoped he would read it each summer. Did you want to connect with him, in some way, on an ongoing basis? You wrote:
now six years old:
this book of birds I loved
I give to you.
I thought now maybe Paul
growing taller than cattails
around Duck Pond
between the river and the Sound
will keep this book intact,
fly back to it each summer
Niedecker’s For Paul poems created a ‘family’ composed of the Zukofskys and herself. At first, Celia and Louis welcomed her attachment to Paul, and the child apparently enjoyed her attentions too.
Sadly shaking his head.
But her choice of Paul as a focus for my poems went…awry. His wife claimed her poems for Paul pressed into the Zukofskys’ privacy. And in 1961, when two of the poems were to be published in my volume, My Friend Tree, Louis asked that she remove the overt biographical content from the titles and dedications. And she did.
John, now lost in his own conclusions.
Ah ha! I think as I discover the story behind Lorine’s poems about Paul. What if our writing is more than a means for us to delude ourselves by transforming one thing into something else? In fact, what if it is the opposite. What if writing allows us to confront indirectly what we cannot head-on? I recall a mystery novel I wrote whose hero was my rather non-communicative son. Though it is fictional I had to flesh out many of the emotions from my own experiences and in some strange way, I came to know myself through this use of him. …Even better than I could have through poetry, which I’ve always considered more personal and more revealing than fiction.
And my novel?
My novel? Oh well…it is never published, but looking back at it now the remarkable thing is that at its conclusion, the young narrator goes to live at the house where his father recently died. Digging through that man’s possessions the son begins to appreciate his dad.
To himself,more than to the audience.
So I wanted your son to appreciate me, big deal. I didn’t see that it’s also my job to appreciate him?