The Sorrowful Exuberance of Thomas Wolfe

The 2017 movie Genius about the relationship between the editor Maxwell Perkins, played by Colin Firth, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, played by Jude Law, prompted me to dive into his sprawling novels–Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River, and The Web and The Rock. In my twenties these books, purchased from a book club, were in my library. I don’t think I completed the reading of any of them, because as a young woman they were beyond my comprehension and a bit on the boring side for my taste in those days.

I stuck with my task this time, starting with the last novel The Web and the Rock published in 1937, next reading Look Homeward Angel published in 1929, and ending with Of Time and the River published in 1935, on which I mulled over the longest.  Sequentially, as a trio of bildungsroman novels, Look Homeward Angel chronicles the youth of Eugene Gant, the main character, in Altamont, North Carolina; Of Time and The River continues his college years in North Carolina and his move to New England for graduate study at Harvard where he discovers New York City and then travels to England and France. The Web and The Rock focuses on New York’s social and cultural life as Eugene struggles as a young playwright and carries on a long love affair with an older married woman.

Instantly, the flood of description and the sheer power of his verbal virtuosity overwhelm me. His monolithic attempt to grasp every sensory impression, milk every observation, and encompass the essence of everything American reverberates like the sonorous cataloguing of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Many sections of his fiction resound like prose poems, particularly in his eulogizing of the crowds and scenes of New York City, in fact, of the entire panorama of America–its rivers, its bridges, its mountains, and what he repeatedly terms its “man-swarm.”

His older brother Ben, who will die young, gives Eugene a gold watch for his twelfth birthday to keep time with “the sorrowful silence of the river.” Throughout every theme and motif of the novel Eugene’s exuberant joy in life is tinged with sorrow, the poignant realization of the inexorable passage of time, a sense of loss and loneliness, and the inevitability of death, while the river ceaselessly runs into the sea. This sentence encapsulates Wolfe’s work: “They knew that they would die and the earth would last forever.”

There is a push and a pull between Eugene’s northern and southern heritage. His father’s roots in Pennsylvania draws him to the north; his mother’s southern roots in the North Carolina hills inhabit his being. The memory of the Civil War haunts the town where he grew up, and the ghosts of all the dead soldiers roam the woods. The web metaphor recurs in all his novels and is associated with his mother’s line and his southern childhood; the rock metaphor, in contrast, is linked to his vision of New York City as the foundation stone of America and of his father who is a stonecutter. One of Wolfe’s outstanding talents as a writer is his brilliant descriptions of his characters’ physical attributes. For example, in describing the stonecutter, he writes, “as if the great strong hands had been unnaturally attached to the puny lifeless figure of a scarecrow.” From the choice of the surname Gant, the connotative significance of gauntness emerges. Similarly, in his mother’s family name Pentland, he captures the acquisitiveness that drives the family to accumulate more and more real estate and in doing so they become pent-up personalities never quite realizing their desires.

There exists as well in his characters a larger sense of the national character. Wolfe perceives Americans as always seeking, always searching, restless, on a quest for gold beyond the next mountain, perpetually a wanderer, never finding that door open. He writes of “the great colony of lost Americans”- those looking to achieve success in one form or another. Not surprisingly, then, he depicts the dissolute life of Eugene and his three companions in post-World War I in 1924, the year Eugene is twenty-four, capturing the spirit of the lost generation that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others of the era first evoked.

Somewhat frustrating in Wolfe’s style is his interesting portraits of new characters only to not carry through with them in the story, such as with Mrs. Potter and Bascom Pentland.  They become cameo roles that do not go anywhere, appearing and disappearing at times, but not adding significantly to a strong narrative line. In fact, plot development is not one of Wolfe’s strong points. However, a fair critic considers how this method lends itself to Wolfe’s purpose, which I see as a kaleidoscopic scope to the chronicle of Eugene Gant’s coming of age. Wolfe wants to record each and every impression on that journey into mature manhood so that every encounter no matter how brief leaves its indelible mark on Eugene’s consciousness. Therefore, whether a character remains for the entire journey or not is immaterial. People, sights, and sounds come and go. All form a part of the web of life and Eugene’s spiritual and intellectual make-up.  In my estimation, he does capture youth’s impetuosity and arrogance–that high-flying period of life when we believe we cannot die.

Equally well he captures the unsavory aspects of America. Drinking has been part of American culture since colonial days. The drunkenness of fathers destroyed families, explaining the rise of the temperance movement and prohibition, which Eugene directly experienced–the New York speakeasies and his father’s own alcoholism. The image of America as lost and seeking solace in alcohol is a constant motif. Francis Starwick is another alcoholic in Of Time and the River. Eugene is his binge buddy in Paris. He and the two women who accompany them in their revels typify the idle rich, a nihilistic set that Wolfe counterpoises with the wealthy Hudson River society represented by Joel Pierce’s family at whose house he is invited to stay for a weekend. In more than one regard, Wolfe touches upon the major cultural trends and historical events of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Another element that Wolfe portrays of  the early twentieth century is the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society, symbolized by the train. Its speed, brute force, and ability to cross a continent transports Eugene to Boston, enabling him to peer into the windows of houses as he passes along the way and forms a major metaphor throughout his novels. The train was Eugene’s ticket out of small-town America and everyone’s golden rail to success. Speed is a feature of the automobile. Eugene goes on a joyride with his alcoholic friends and ends up in a South Carolina jail. Wolfe describes cars as great beetles of machinery. He senses that something had changed in the face of America and also in the faces of the people; the metal and the speed had affected them. The automobile would change the scenery of the country, its architecture, and social life.

Thomas Wolfe sensed his own genius and imbued his character Eugene with that same ebullience. It was an unbridled genius that neither Maxwell Perkins nor later editors satisfactorily reigned in.  Despite their editorial efforts, the novels still are over-written and repetitious. Sometimes the repetitions are purposeful poetic refrains and other times they are overdone. More pruning is necessary to make his works masterful and totally pleasing like the well-wrought poem on the Grecian urn that John Keats immortalized. Without diminishing the power and strengths of his language and themes, I recognize his weaknesses and where his writing falls short of greatness without denying his significant place in American literature. Simply, too much fat remains for trimming. Individual words are overused or repeated in close proximity to each other for no discernible purpose. The practice of poetry could have given Wolfe a handle and a harness on his diarrheic prose. His style produces the type of weariness at hearing a great orchestra play glorious symphonies too long. The senses become overloaded. A performer needs to know when to stop, to recognize that point where the auditor is still in awe and has not become bored, overcharged, and surfeited with genius. Wolfe consistently overplays his hand. This has been said before by many critics, who also laud his genius while acknowledging its limitations. In sum, his writing is over-heated and over-cooked–a meal that some may not stomach. Those gluttons for luscious language and sumptuous sentences will gorge on Wolfe’s prose.

The qualities of sorrow and exuberance intertwine and permeate Thomas Wolfe’s ambitious vision incorporating Eugene Gant’s individual experience with the American ethos.


Writers’ Retreats

Open any distinguished literary magazine to the classified section and the number of advertisements for writers’ retreats are remarkable, some at rather exotic locations like Tuscany, a Greek Island, or Andalucia. Supposedly, a writer whether experiencing the spurious writer’s block or not, may need a vacation from the ordinary routine for inspiration. Apparently, the ambience of a get-away from it all provides the lubricant to oil the gears of creativity again, causing me to wonder what happened to the artist’s garret, the cramped quarters in a rotten borough that gave birth to some great works of literature.

In times past a quiet corner in a greasy spoon cafe provided enough fuel to fire the imagination. All that was required to write were a table, a pad of yellow paper, and a stubby pencil with a useable eraser at the end. The compulsion to write no matter what the environment was sufficient. Nowadays the pursuit responds to commercialism as so many other endeavors in contemporary life. The cyclist needs a proper suit, helmet, and shoes to ride a technologically up-to-date ten-speed bicycle. Every sport needs its high quality equipment for success, so why not writing. Writers are encouraged to invest in writers’ conferences and the still more expensive retreats. Hire the services of an editor or professional critiquer. Purchase computer software to grammar and spellcheck. Register for a course on how to write the blockbuster novel. Spend, spend, spend.

I am fortunate to actually live in a writer’s retreat–a log house abutting a national forest in northwest Montana. Born in Chicago, raised watching urban sprawl spread around me in a village outside the city, I now spend my golden years removed from traffic and commercialism.  I toyed with the idea once of hosting a writers’ retreat here in the tranquility of the mountains, but something in my nature resisted the effort to plan such an enterprise. Besides, conducting a writer’s retreat would deflect from my own writing. Consequently, I decided that my energy was best spent in actually writing more.

Although I have beautiful surroundings in which to write and ample solitude for reflection, neither are together or alone, the magic pill for prolific writing. A determined writer can produce volumes in a dump. A motivated writer can screen out distractions while the television blares in the background. I don’t fall in the latter category, for I require solitude and the only sound I find conducive is contemplative music to my taste. The retreat is into the writer’s head, that special place where imagination dwells, where the images become words, sentences, paragraphs, and extend into infinity. The imagination in not finite nor is the human will. It is the will to create anytime, anyplace, anyhow that gets that brain child born into the light of day. The stillpoint of creation resides in the compulsion to write no matter what the circumstances. Virginia Woolf famously demanded a room of her own. Where that room is, how the writer creates that room, is up to him or her alone.  Anyone who successfully writes has retreated into that private space wherever it may be, beautiful or ugly, near or far. However, it is not necessarily a physical place but the intangible domain of the imagination, which can be activated anywhere.

The Mother of All Virtues

If I were to choose one virtue to put at the top of my list, it would be honesty. The importance of being honest affects all walks of life, all personal interactions, and professions. When emotional or deep-seated psychological problems develop, the individual often is diagnosed as having been in denial. The truth has been buried or suppressed somehow to the detriment of mental health. It is healthier to confront truth no matter how painful as a purgative process in order to evolve spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Writing is a method to work out the psychic knots. The verbalization of feelings clarifies and purifies. Cutting through the brambles and briars with words that name the emotions and describes the experience clears a path to move forward. The writer’s eye refuses to deny anything; his vision takes in beauty, ugliness, heroics, and villainy in equal measure. Of necessity storytellers are truth tellers. In the intricate webs they weave, they look honestly at the essence of a situation and relate in fictional terms what it is to be unutterably human. The baseness, the guilt, the love, the compassion, and the sorrow the characters display in a story have emerged from the writer’s consciousness and recognition of those qualities in his own experience. To be honest is to tell the truth. What transforms the truth-telling into art is design. Honesty cannot be blunt; it must be carefully told, unfold in a way that enlightens and expands and does not leave the reader in despair or despondency.

Am I saying that all stories must have a happy ending? Not at all. Rather I am suggesting something akin to the platitude that honesty is the best policy, that honesty does set you free to live a better, fuller life. The ending may not be happy in the usual sense that no one dies or is left forlorn, but that revelation of some kind has dawned on the reader, if not the main character, and entailed in that denouement is the truth of the matter. Throughout his plays from Iago in Othello to Gertrude in Hamlet, Shakespeare works the themes of lying, deception, and dishonesty. The deficiency in honesty creates the conflict. Whether in literature or in life, this failure to be honest either with oneself or with others is the source of disruption and unhappiness, instigating war between family members or between nations. Modern literature gives ample examples of lies and self-deception. For instance, more than one character in The Great Gatsby is living a lie.

Intellectual honesty deserves a sphere of its own. It seems to be in sparse supply in a media world of spin doctors, apologists, sycophants, and defenders of political stupidity and hypocrisy. An intellectually honest person conscientiously avoids deception of any form. This includes the omission of relevant facts from an argument, twisting the facts to support his preconceived views, and not letting his predispositions interfere with the pursuit of truth. An intellectually honest person does not present flawed defenses to support friends and business associates. An intellectually honest person concedes the good points of alternate arguments. In the current American environment we have witnessed countless examples of these forms of intellectual dishonesty: 1) plagiarism, 2) double standards, 3) false analogies, 4) overgeneralization, 5) straw man arguments, that is, gross misrepresentation or oversimplification of the opponent’s view, 6) poisoning the well or smear tactic, that is, associating negative emotions or derogatory adjectives to the opponent. The last example of intellectual dishonesty was on stark display in the denigrations hurled during the 2016 election: “low-energy Jeb Bush,” “lying Ted,” “little Marco,” and “crooked Hillary.” The barrage of the ad hominem continues from the Oval Office.

Intellectual honesty also entails the responsibility, in fact, the duty to speak the truth. To remain silent while the rain of lies continues is dishonorable, if not downright cowardly. I call upon all members of Congress and all Americans today to practice intellectual honesty. There are some who have spoken the truth–notably, Representative Maxine Waters of California, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, New York Times liberal columnist Charles Blow, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, New York Times Republican columnist David Brooks, and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. These come to mind; you may think of many more. Intellectually  honest citizens like the ones I name here keep me optimistic that our democracy will not succumb to an autocracy under the rule of lies.




Straitjacket of Ideology

Because it is a system of thought that runs on one track, an ideology subverts clarity of thought, creativity and substitutes a fixed idea for the generation of a multitude of ideas for the sake of adherence to one over-riding theory. Reality is interpreted to fit that ideology. The scientific method is scuttled in the process.  Ideology is a set of doctrines on which to base political, economic, and other policy. It produces a constricted, narrow view of a diverse world. In that way, it squelches creativity and distorts and misinterprets reality.  Instead of viewing the world in all its diversity, the ideologue attempts to pour infinity into a finite, single test tube against which he measures whether something is right or wrong, suitable or unsuitable for implementation.  Only the solution that the ideology prescribes is permitted. Examination of the unique characteristics of a particular problem is not undertaken because ideology has predetermined the way to solve it. Viable alternatives are not considered nor even admitted to be worthy of discussion. Debate is stunted or turned into a shouting match of insult and invective. For the ideological mind there is only one way to skin a cat.

In the words of Václev Havel, the Czech playwright and president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and then of the Czech Republic from 1993-2002, ideology is a straitjacket. If that is so, then the ideologue is a madman, worthy of a padded cell. Havel articulated well the dangers of ideology under communism, describing ideology as a specious way of relating to the world. Consequently, ideological politicians easily lose their moral compass. The health, education, and welfare of individuals are sacrificed to an ideological imperative. Havel eloquently argued for politics as a moral profession, although he suffered no illusions about how easy it is for disreputable people to make politics disreputable. In his essay “Politics, Morality, and Civility,” he writes that the disreputable ones are willing “to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering a colorful range of attractive nonsense.”

Reading Havel’s essays and letters has caused me to think long about the pitfall of ideology not only as it relates to politics but also how it relates to creativity and artistic pursuits. It is no coincidence that the artist in a society is often the dissident.  The dissident is the person who speaks against the prevailing belief and who will no longer tolerate public lies. He wishes to rip off society’s blindfold.  When the majority of the population has become numb to truth, the dissenting artist strives to awaken deadened sensibilities and to encourage people to no longer accept injustice. The dissident refuses to accept ideology as the end and be-all of public discussion and staunchly insists on seeing the individual human being and not a homogenous conglomerate. A society or a political party boxed into one way of thinking is so impaired and its creativity so atrophied that it is incapable of problem-solving.  Through individual responsibility and freedom of expression, the artist breaks the mold and opens new vistas. The strength of democracy depends on indivisibility of the body politic, that is, in perceiving that an injustice suffered by one member of society is an affront to the rights of everyone and must be resisted. The power of the powerless resides in their numbers organized to protest against the abuse of power. The artist first galvanizes this sleeping giant to rise up and demand good governance. Ideology excludes; whereas, creative thought seeks to expand and to include. No individual is denied his freedom, dignity, or inalienable rights without protest from the rest of society, for ultimately no citizen is immune from an autocratic regime.

But the artist, too, can be captive to ideological thinking.  The adoption of one style or technique to the exclusion of new methods and approaches will ultimately stifle creativity and cement his art into a rigid, unchanging mold, for he has embraced a set of artistic precepts so thoroughly that the generation of new ideas is blocked. His works will be recognizable for their predictability and monotony. The elements of surprise, mystery, adventure, and experimentation are missing. Because the artist has become numb to diversity and the multitudinous facets of reality, his art is dull and does not direct the human condition. One-dimensional thinking is the pitfall of both art and politics. Thus, an inept novelist creates one-dimensional characters. The adept artist realizes that multiple dimensions exist for exploration in this wonderful universe and that solutions to problems are not bi-polar, presenting an either-or situation. Idealogues like to delineate two choices–their way or the highway.

Ideology is the asylum where madmen go to spin their wheels, where anger and argument rampage, and where nothing gets solved. As the twenty-first century progresses, let us strip off the straitjacket of ideology whether in an artistic ism such as dadaism, cubism, impressionism and post-modernism or in monorail constructions like capitalism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, authoritarianism, or even absurdism.

Retrospective on Six Years of Blogging

When I began this venture into online writing six years ago, I viewed it as my outlet to the world–an instant digital plug-in to communicate with bookworms and bibliophiles around the globe from my isolated mountain retreat far from the country’s cultural centers. As an obscure, unknown writer, I would send missives to unknown addressees. Luckily, none of my posts would come back marked “Return to Sender.” In Emily Dickinson’s terms, if the world did not come to visit me or write letters to me, then I would write little essays to the world that never wrote to me. Like sending a message in a bottle out to sea, I would post short commentaries on the art of writing, favorite books and authors, films, all things literary, and any topic cultural or political that appealed to me and send my little essays to float off into the blogosphere and land willy-nilly where they may.

As a blogger I hoped to spark a conversation. In retrospect, blogging has been a successful and satisfying form of self-expression, but it has not produced the dialogue to the extent I had hoped for between me and readers. Although I often invite readers to add their thoughts and ideas on the topic of my posts, they have not generated a great deal of comments, at least not as many as I would have liked. Despite this, I am a little frog with boundless temerity in an ocean of bloggers and have collected my posts over the period May 2011 to May 2017 into a book titled How Public Like a Frog.

I am a frog on a log in my blog. I may be croaking alone, but I enjoy the sound of my croaks. Blended from the labial at the end of the word web and from log, as in a ship’s log or journal, the blog emerged in the 1990s and quickly caught fire. The blog can simply be an online personal journal, a ranting platform, or an informational forum on any conceivable hobby or interest. Essentially, it is informal non-fiction writing, making anyone in the world an opinion columnist. I aim for my blog posts to be mini-essays. In the classic sense, their goal is to delight and instruct, appealing to writers and readers of all genres even poetry lovers.

Sometimes my blog frog has ventured into the political swamp. I believe this topic is not off-limits to serious writers. Not only opinion columnists and political scientists are entitled to wade through this territory, but fiction writers as story-tellers must uphold honesty. In a way, fiction writers tell honest lies. They fabricate fictional truth by creating a made-up world in which they can illuminate reality and expose hypocrisy and venality under the guise of storytelling. They change the names of people and places, alter clothes and accents, add a mustache or curl the hair here and there to protect both the innocent and the guilty. As for poetry, it embodies heightened life; it encapsulates the life lived well and honestly. A faked poem is readily apparent; it is sentimental, forced, pompous, and gerrymandered. No higher praise can be awarded a novel, a poem, a film, any literary work than to pronounce it true to life. The frog alone in its bog reflects upon what it sees. His small pond is a microcosm of the macrocosm. Those reflections may find a kindred spirit in the universe, and when that happens, I croak happily.

As long as I have breath and functioning brain cells, my frog will publicize my thoughts and observations on this blog. I like commenting on books and films that have enlightened me. They are like flies I catch here and there while I am sitting on my log. My roving eye enjoys movies and will  not resist telling you why I think they are worth viewing. I love art, music, and painting.  In case you haven’t noticed, I go absolutely gaga over history.  Perhaps I am a hopeless dilettante, a dabbler in the arts, a goggle-eyed egg-headed intellectual. That’s not to say I avoid exercise. I do like to jump from lily pad to lily pad, to dive in the water and make a small splash, a little ping in the pond now and then. I hope you’ll be standing by the shore and listening.


Storytelling Is Merry Playing

This past year I have been turning my hand to writing short stories on the lower end of the spectrum usually ranging to 3,000 words or less. Storytelling is merry playing. A writer is a merry player, so it is appropriate that I offer a story of that name to illustrate the metaphor. Music generated my tale in the first place. I was listening to a tape entitled “Earth Quest” of synthesized music that evoked merriment and a feeling of tripping through an old oak forest. The music furnishes the mood, tone, tempo, and rhythm to which a writer adds the images. Those images in turn give rise to scenes peopled with a cast of characters and a story line. Play as opposed to work is supposed to be fun. Not surprisingly, then, the verb used to describe the act of making music with an instrument is play. In theater arts the noun form refers to the dramatic production and the written script. Likewise, the actors are called players. Some writers describe the act of writing as enjoyable, and others describe it as merely hard work requiring concentration, dedication, and hours of solitude when it would be easier to abandon the task and go watch television. Either way, writing involves a willingness to play with language. Inherent in the activity is a delight in craft, in design, and in the incessant arrangement and rearrangement of scenes and characters into a pleasing order of sound and sense. If not always a merry pastime in its execution, the completion of the story results in merriment. Sometimes the journey from start to finish takes a dark path, but more often than not when I attempt to write a short story, I lapse into a humorous vein. I may begin with a serious theme, but I drift into the wry, the absurd, or the comical without realizing it. Eventually, I discover how my story has shifted to the whimsical, and I am happy at the outcome. I have made merry along the forest path.

Merry Players

The band of strolling players approached the thatch roofs of the village in the lake country, an obscure dell in the northwest corner of England. The emerald-green hedgerows glittered with the fallen rain. The dwarf at the head of the procession merrily skipped along the muddy lane, squeezing a jig from his small accordion. The troupe would perform a farcical skit for the townsfolk in the village square.

After a flash of lightning and another roll of thunder, the rain, which had dwindled to a stray drop or two ceased entirely. The sun peeped over the wet haystack. A carter met them at the outskirts of the village and hailed them with a hearty welcome.

He said, “I be going to market in Ramsbottom today and won’t return until late tomorrow. I’m sorry to miss your antics, but I’m sure the lads at the pub will tell me about the merriment.”

“May the wind blow gently at your back, sir,” said the leader of the band, a red, jolly-faced stub of a man, who looked rather like a diminutive Friar Tuck of Robin Hood’s band, striding beside the brightly painted covered wagon, the sides adorned in flowery motifs of brilliant blue, red, green, and yellow. The dwarf, his large head bobbling atop his stunted body, sauntered past the carter. The force of the dwarf’s personality had awarded him the position of leadership in this traveling band of players—a small circus act of sorts composed of tumblers, musicians, and dancers, and even a puppet show. Ethelrod was his name, no other given appellation; he demanded to be addressed only by his patronymic. Ethelrod’s third decade had commenced a month ago. Dwarves rarely lived beyond age thirty, but with the plague and fever neither did normal-sized men survive to a greater age. He would have married if he had encountered a suitable female dwarf anywhere in the north of England; but he had not, so he and the fat, boisterous soprano of the party formed an incongruous couple. He managed to find a way beneath her ample skirts and she treated him like a cuddly puppy that amused her without end. In Kate’s estimation, Ethelrod was a fine figure of a man although he was barely five feet tall. His head was nobly configured, a long, protuberant jaw, but magnificent brown eyes and high cheek bones and brow that was square and commanding, a head topped with lustrous black hair. She suspected he had a bit of the Welsh in him, because not only did he have the darkly handsome looks of the Celt, he also had the sonorous, bass singing voice of that swarthy race. Only the slight, yet noticeable hump making his left shoulder lopsided marred his generally handsome appearance. Kate was almost as round as she was tall. Her triple chin jostled like jelly when she rolled with laughter at almost anything, for life was a bowl of Yorkshire pudding for her and every day was Christmas Eve. The troupe had devised a few slapstick masques to regale the crowd, domestic spats between shrewish wife and badgered husband, Kate in the role of the nag and Ethelrod playing the hapless husband. He didn’t mind being at the short end of the stick, for his caricatures drew barrels of laughter and filled his felt hat with coins that he passed after every performance like a church basket throughout the audience.

When the band entered the village from the eastern gate tooting horn and beating drum, they discovered a crowd already assembled in the greensward. Ethelrod halted his troupe and restrained the horse-drawn wagon with a tug on the poor sway-backed white mare’s bridle.

“What, ho, be there?” he asked a chap in a torn tunic beside the lane.

“The sheriff be getting the square ready for a witch,” the peasant answered and picked a flea from his sleeve. A few straw shafts stuck out from his matted hair. Ethelrod supposed rightly that the lad had slept in the stable yard that night.

“I came to town last night so as to be here early to see the show.” Seeing Ethelrod’s curiosity, he volunteered this information. “You’ll not have an audience this day for your mummery, I daresay,” he added.

“Um . . . not likely . . .” Ethelrod mused. “Yes, it do seem my stage is taken.”

Kate popped her mop of thick, curly, carrot-colored hair from between the curtains at the back of the cart. “Did I hear someone say witch?  Witch they call only some pitiful wench, scrofulous men take a disliking for. That be the day they hang a witch in Digglebury Town.”

“It’ll not be a hanging. It’s a burning. She’s already been dipped in the brook and she floated.”

“Good god, she floated because she didn’t want to drown, you ass,” Kate bellowed.

“You’ll pardon me. I’m going to shimmy up the blacksmith’s roof to get a better view.”

Kate beckoned Ethelrod to the rear of the wagon. “I’ll not countenance such a scene. The rabble has always been for a freak show or two. Nothing so like drawing and quartering or lopping some chap’s head off to summon a crowd of stupid gawkers. For the love of Mary, we’ve played to such a crowd for our benefit. They love a fight, a bear-baiting, or a simple crofter’s housewife gouging her husband’s eye out for having a roll in the haystack with the milkmaid. But I’ll not have a witch-burning. No, sirrah. It’s superstition and deviltry.”

“You can’t do anything about it when god-besotted aldermen and black-robbed clerics decide a maid is bewitched.”

“They’re all addled with their own lust, I swear,” Kate pronounced vehemently.

“You can’t save the lass, so you may as well watch the spectacle and thank the Lord God you don’t burn in her shoes.”

“Humph . . .” Kate breathed and popped back into the protective cover of the gaily painted wagon.

Ethelrod unharnessed the white mare and led her to the stable yard for a fresh bag of oats and temporary pasturage in the stable yard. The rest of the troupe wandered off to investigate the uproar in the town, eager not to miss any excitement or spectacle the burning of the purported witch offered. After he saw the old mare content behind the fence, switching her tail at horseflies, he headed toward the village square. As he approached the troupe’s cart, Kate beckoned him from the back of the wagon.

“I’m not standing idle while they murder an innocent woman. Witchery . . . I’ll be damned if it is. It’s the blathering of both papists and Puritans and I’ll have none of it, and if you be more than half a man, which by heaven, I know you to be; you’ll go along with my scheme. Hear me awhile.” She climbed down from the cart. Leaning down to Ethelrod, who reached but to her shoulder, she whispered into his ear.

“Aye, woman, I vow someday, you’ll be the death of me.” He laughed despite himself. “You’ve spunk my girl, more than enough for a man that I wonder if you should not have been a man.” He laughed again. He slapped his hand against his thigh. “I’m the very size to do it.” Kate kissed him on both cheeks, and then ducked back into the wagon while Ethelrod directed his steps toward the bustle in the square. He elbowed his way through the crowd, intent upon gaining a closer view of the center stake around which bundles of brambles and dry branches had been spread. As yet, the convicted woman had not appeared nor had the civic and religious officials gathered on the raised dais or viewing platform. He eavesdropped on the murmurings of the crowd. A holiday spirit permeated the milling villagers, glad to take up a day of merriment in their usual dawn-to-dusk labors. Ethelrod was about to head to the tavern for a tankard of ale, when a trumpet blasted and the town crier announced the entry of the mayor and an entourage of clerics at his heels. The dignitaries took their positions upon the platform. Then the accused witch in a skimpy, umber-colored shift, her hands tied behind her back, escorted by a bailiff was led to the stake. One boney shoulder was exposed, and her golden hair spread like a misshapen heap of straw all askew, stretching at every angle from her head and down the middle of her back—a gigantic halo gone awry as if it were a devil’s plot to undo the highest-ranking seraph of heaven, he thought. Ethelrod could see that with a goodly scrubbing of her face, she was a comely maid.

The bailiff bound the slim young woman to the stake. When the chief cleric saw the task completed and the poor woman securely tied, her head lifted in defiance, her eyes steeled for what she soon must endure; he arose.

“Do you repent lest you suffer the pangs of eternal damnation in the fires of hell?”

“I repent of nothing, for I have done no wrong. Of this, you know full well. You are the one to be damned by the Lord of Heaven and of Earth. I do here condemn thee.”

“Do you not fear for your soul? Confess I say, repent, and you will be welcomed into the bosom of Our Savior.”

“Save your own damned soul,” she shouted.

“Then you seek the purification of the fire?”

“Have done with it. Do the foul deed now. I am confessed of nothing.”

With that the cleric gave the nod for the fire to be lit. The bailiff, holding a flambeau, walked toward a brazier of hot coals. At that moment, heads in the crowd turned in response to the clop of horse’s hooves and the shrill whoops of a woman. Rapidly advancing upon the square was a red-haired woman, stark naked, astraddle like a man an aged white horse. She was plump, her full breasts brushing the neck of the horse, her buttocks like pink panniers spanning its rump, and fleshy thighs grasping the sides of her mount as her heels spurred the animal onward. Agog at the spectacle of the nude, bareback rider, all eyes followed her as she circled the village square, shrieking in joyous abandon, unashamed of her exposed condition, but seemingly glorying in her display. The horse, too, appeared to have summoned new reserves of energy in the attention she was also receiving even though the best that the mare could do was a rolling trot. What dignity or shock remained to the mayor and the clerics on the dais evaporated as they watched in fascination the lewd performance. Dazed, they did not know if the devil had ensorcelled them, or the witch at the stake had conjured a profane vision before their eyes.

Ethelrod slipped through the circle of gawkers, a dagger held between his teeth, swiftly slithering to the stake and cut the girl free from the stake, hissing at her, “Run quickly. To the forest beyond the south gate.  Watch for the painted player’s cart there. Go.”

She ran, bare-footed, like a fleet doe while the crowd, stunned, still followed the circuit of the naked fat lady on the old mare. Then, the first licentious man whistled; another hooted; the shoemaker’s apprentice threw her a copper pence and cried, “That’s what I like—meat on a woman’s bones.” Some laughter erupted, but some good wives boxed their husbands’ ears. Catcalls and shouts of “For shame” mixed in the hullabaloo that arose in the throng, all attention continuing to be riveted on the naked lady.

Finally, the mayor stirred herself from his stupor and ordered. “Arrest her.”

The chief cleric shook off his shock and shouted, “Indecent exposure. Jail her.”

The dwarf jumped upon the platform. “Halt, My wife is touched in the head. She has spells worsened by the witch’s stare. Leave it to me. I’ll take her home and apply a poultice that brings her back to her senses.”

The authorities hesitated. “This is a matter for the courts,”

“Please, Your Grace. It is but a slight inflammation of the cerebrum. I can handle it. Allow me,” Ethelrod bowed low and scraped the boards with his floppy, felt hat.

At first the mayor looked skeptically and was about to utter a word when a hubbub arose in the crowd. “She’s gone! She’s gone!” Everyone’s attention turned to the stake, and certainly, the witch had disappeared.

“Search the town,” the major roared. In the confusion Ethelrod and Kate escaped beyond the square and quickly retreated to the covered wagon where the rest of the troupe awaited. Kate disappeared into the wagon to dress quickly. The men harnessed the white mare to the wagon, climbed aboard, and wheeled the wagon around, exiting the village by the south gate. The players formed a train, lagging several yards behind the departing wagon.

Not far outside the gate, the disheveled woman emerged from behind the gnarled trunk of an oak tree and raced toward the colorful player’s cart. Ethelrod extended a hand raising her up beside him on the driver’s seat. “No time to talk now. We make haste to the old forest road,” and he lightly snapped the whip on the nag’s swayed back. Gamely, she quickened her step a bit, energized by the oat bag fastened to her nose and sensitivity she had developed from a long relationship with the driver. She summoned a brisk trot for a mile, then lagged somewhat as the caravan swerved into the forest gloom. Ethelrod let the mare amble at a gentle pace. She was familiar with the way to the hidden dell deep in the recesses of the forest where they would make their camp. Toward dusk, the troupe angled into a narrow break in the dense foliage and stopped in an area circled by protective oaks. Minutes later, the train of players trickled into the dell. After the campfire was lit and the kettle of stew was warming above the flames, the troupe settled around the pit to hear the rescued woman’s story.

Ethelrod began, “With what witchery did they charge you?”

“Yes, tell us do,” Kate echoed, an amiable smile on her round face.

“Gladly, I’ll tell you who rescued me. I am an orphan, raised by the midwife who died and taught me her simples and medicaments. She trained me in the ways of the healer and showed me every curative plant and herb, mushroom and flower in the forest. When the chandler’s wife gave birth to a boy with a club foot, they blamed me. Then, the reeve’s daughter was born with a split lip and he pointed the figure at me again.”

“Nothing but a run of bad luck,” Kate exclaimed indignantly.

“Not to them. Bad births are a sign of sorcery—the devil’s work—to them. One addled love-struck maid, who couldn’t get the attentions of the mayor’s son, accused me of lasciviously dancing with him at the maypole.”

“Mere jealousy,” Kate bellowed. “That be the devil all the time.”

“Shut up, Madame, and listen her out,” Ethelrod gently reprimanded his effusive mate.

“If truth be told, the lad did have an eye for me,” the young woman laughed, brightening at the memory, her beauty heightening despite the disarray of her hair and garments.

“Aye, did you return the favor?” Kate asked playfully.

“Well, no . . . I am not disposed to marry. My vocation is nun-like as was the beldame, Mistress Marion, who took me when my parents died of the plague. My father was a traveling tinker. My mother passed first and afterwards he left me on the midwife’s doorstep before he expired also.”

“A sad tale,” Ethelrod said.

“You be safe now with us,” Kate said. “With a bit of sprucing up, you’ll be a player. Can you sing and dance, lass?”

“To be sure I can do a jig or Morris dance as well as the next one as soon as administer a healing draft or apply a poultice to a wound,” she answered cheerily.

“Will you join our band, then, of merry players?” Ethelrod chimed in.

“If you’ll have me.”

“We will,” the troupe cried in unison.

“Draw a keg of ale,” Ethelrod shouted. “Let’s celebrate our new player.”

“A fine witch’s brew as ever I drank,” Kate chortled, her jowls jostling. “Fill our chests with jests until every cow jumps over the moon.”

They celebrated into the night and the forest rang with their laughter and song as every woodland creature grew silent, scurrying into their dark burrows. The old forest was dark but comforting, only the merry players providing a spot of light within the gloom.

Fiddling around with Poetry

As I put together my eighth poetry book, Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry” keeps intruding into my thoughts. Her poem begins with the memorable words, “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on to refer to poetry as “fiddle.” I admit I have been unapologetically fiddling around with poetry since I was sweet sixteen. I’ve decided to title this latest collection of fiddling around Still Unrepentant. I am unlikely to repudiate this sinful pleasure any time soon. I will die both loving and disliking poetry.

I suppose I dislike poetry primarily because few people except other poets actually ever read it. I love it because it increases life’s meaningfulness. I dislike it when I don’t understand it, and I am like the bat “holding upside down” in Moore’s poem. I have been hopping around a long time like a real toad in that imaginary garden, which is Moore’s metaphor for the art of writing poetry. Inherent in that metaphor are two dichotomies: poetry is composed of both fantasy and reality; poetry deals with both the beautiful and the ugly. Gardens are thought of as beautiful places abloom with colorful flowers and greenery while toads with their warts and bulging eyes are perceived as unattractive.  For Moore, good poetry must be both raw and genuine.

When I confess to others that I write poetry, I receive blank looks in response, as if I am, in fact, a strange toad they just encountered in the road, and they are left speechless, not knowing how to react to such an oddity. “Really, a poet?” they’d like to say, staring uncomprehendingly at this eccentric who writes poems rather than action-packed thrillers. In the first poem in my new collection, entitled “Incorrigible,” I imagine asking absolution in Catholic confession for the sin of writing. Afterwards I leave the confessional as unrepentant as ever.

Above all, I like poetry for its playfulness with language and its double meanings, in the very way in which Moore uses the word fiddle. A fiddle is a musical instrument. The poet fiddles, or plays around, with words. Poetry is no more nonsensical or less serious an art than playing the violin. To fiddle around implies that an activity is idle and inconsequential, and therefore a trivial pursuit. Moore’s irony, however, leads to the opposite conclusion. In poking fun at the popular belief that poetry is purposeless, she asserts poetry is what is truly genuine, for it strikes at the core of life. Creativity defines the essence of our humanity. Man is the animal with language. The concision of poetry is the supreme expression of our ability to shape language into meaning. Poetry also is the ideal means to avoid the pitfall contained in Socrates’ dictum: The unexamined life is not worth living. I render my life meaningful, at least to myself, in the act of writing poetry, and I remain unrepentant.