12 Winters Blog

Notes from the Louisville Conference and AWP 2012

Posted in March 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 18, 2012

The transition of February into March was exceedingly busy for me as I attended both the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Feb. 23-25) and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago (Feb. 29-March 3). I’ve been a regular attendee and presenter at Louisville the past eight years, but I’ve only attended AWP twice, the other time being Chicago 2004. Hecticness aside, the conferences were well worth the effort, and for this post I’ll record some thoughts and observations about each.

This year’s installment was the fortieth Louisville Conference, and it was typically excellent. I presented a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel and how the fallout-shelter phenomenon of the 1950s and ’60s may have affected its writing. The novel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, took Gass nearly thirty years to write, and he published 19 excerpts of The Tunnel in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monographs between 1969 and 1988. Given my paper’s focus and the necessary brevity of the presentation, I concentrated my analysis on the two earliest published excerpts: “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review (1969) and “Why Windows Are Important to Me” in TriQuarterly (1971). My paper was essentially a companion to a paper I presented at Louisville in 2010 on Gass and nuclear annihilation in general, focusing somewhat on The Tunnel but mainly on his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968).

My paper was part of a prearranged panel for The PsyArt Foundation, organized by Andrew Gordon. My scholarly interests have been associated with literary trauma theory; that is, looking at texts, especially postmodern texts, that may have been significantly influenced by the writer’s traumatized psyche. And I’ve been especially interested in cultural trauma, whereby an entire nation or some other large group of people has experienced the zeitgeist of trauma (e.g., fear of nuclear annihilation). When my interests in literary trauma theory began around 2008, it was not an area that a lot of scholars were exploring; however, the theoretical paradigm seems to be catching on as I was surprised to find that at the 2012 Louisville Conference there were numerous papers involving trauma-theory readings of texts. In fact, in the online program I found 23 panels and papers that contained the word “trauma.” Unfortunately, the Conference doesn’t seem to archive its past programs online, and this link will likely go dead in the near future.

The overall quality of the presentations at Louisville is always excellent, but here are some papers or readings that I found to be especially engaging: The panel on “Modernism & Experimentation” was very thought provoking with presenters Lindsay Welsch (on Forster’s A Passage to India), Elizabeth J. Wellman (on Djuna Barnes), and — especially — Christopher McVey’s paper “Book of Lief, A Comedy of Letters: Finnegans Wake, Historiography, and the Heliotrope.” I also learned a lot from Carolyn A. Durham’s paper “The Spy Novel Parodied: Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech.” In a panel that I chaired, there were two exceptional papers on films: Patrick Herald’s “I Have Lost Something: Fantasy in American Beauty” and William Welty’s “‘That Rug Really Tied the Room Together’: Why The Dude Is a Lacanian.”

In the creative panel that I was part of, reading “Crowsong for the Stricken,” I had the pleasure of hearing Don Peteroy’s entertaining short story “Too Much Anthropology” and the spellbinding poetry of Cecilia Woloch.

In mentioning these few, I have omitted countless excellent others, but in the interest of everyone’s attention span I’ll move on to some words about AWP 2012. I’d never attended a conference that had literally sold out, but AWP in Chicago did, as there were more than 9,000 participants this year. Besides presentations and readings, one of the most notable aspects of the annual conference is its bookfair, where hundreds of presses (especially small and university presses) and literary journals display the fruits of their labors (of love). I attended AWP as part of the “Q crew” (as I call us), the editors, readers and interns of Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program, housed on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield, Illinois. Frankly, I enjoy hanging out at the Quiddity table and telling passers-by about the journal and radio program, but I also attended some very interesting panels and readings.

Among the interesting panels that I attended were “The Fiction Chapbook — A Sleeper Form Wakes Up” (by Nicole Louise Reid, Eric Lorberer, Diane Goettel, Keven Sampsell, and Abigail Beckel) about how the chapbook, known mostly as a format for poetry, could become an excellent way to get short fiction into the hands of readers; and “The Science of Stories: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Making Narratives” (by Jack Wang, Andrew Elfenbein, Tim Horvath, Austin Bennett, and Livia Blackburne) about how and why readers respond to various aspects of storytelling.

I also attended an excellent reception/reading hosted by Ruminate Magazine, Rock & Sling, and WordFarm. Then following that reception was one of the historic moments of the conference, a reading by U.K. and U.S. Poets Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine — I mean, how often does one get to hear a national poet laureate, period, leave be the current U.K. and U.S. poets on the same stage?

My double conference extravaganza was a bit taxing, but both were well worth the time and effort. Just a couple of other quick notes regarding my own writing and publishing: My story “Primitive Scent” appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Tulane Review. Also, on the day I was to read “Crowsong for the Stricken” at the Louisville Conference I received an email that it will appear in this spring’s edition of Noctua Review. Moreover, just before leaving for AWP I had an email that Constellations will be publishing “Beside Running Waters” in its forthcoming issue. And finally, I’ve heard that the issue of Pisgah Review with my story “The Composure of Death” is out. (The Pisgah website is a bit behind and still featuring the winter 2010 issue.)

The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House, plans to bring out my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God. Originally it was slated for spring 2012, but there’s been no movement on it, so that time frame is probably not very realistic. If interested (or even if not), see my website tedmorrissey.com for updates regarding its publication and other news.

The Pharmacy has quickly become a site of literary energy

Posted in December 2011 by Ted Morrissey on December 18, 2011

The Pharmacy art studio, located at the corner of Pasfield and South Grand in Springfield, Illinois, has quickly established itself as not only a site of visual artistic energy but literary artistic energy as well. In addition to hosting readings, often in conjunction with University of Illinois at Springfield’s creative writing program — in recent months poets Stephen Frech and E. E. Smith, and UIS’s undergraduate and graduate creative writers — The Pharmacy has hosted and/or organized writing workshops and open-mic events. Spearheaded by Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson, The Pharmacy Literati have already had a profound impact on promoting and producing literature in Springfield. And all this, of course, is in addition to The Pharmacy’s primary mission to promote visual artists.

Most recently, The Pharmacy hosted novelist (among many other things) A. D. Carson, who read from his novel Cold. I’ve italicized “read” because it was really more of a performance than a simple reading, including wrap, slam poetry, and often accompanied by recorded musical tracks, composed and in large part performed by A. D. In fact, Cold has companion CDs and MP3s (see A. D.’s Amazon page). A. D.’s multifaceted reading was emblematic of The Pharmacy itself in that it’s a creative space which places no boundaries on imagination, regardless of form or content. Art, some completed, some in progress, adorns the walls and various nooks; here, there and everywhere are the various implements and supplies for making art, plus manual and power tools, food stuff, a hodgepodge of furniture, and, of course, books, books, books … on shelves, on tables, on couches. In addition to the artwork, the walls are also home to graffitied quotes.

In sum, The Pharmacy is wonderfully, beautifully messy — it’s sort of like the bedroom of a hypercreative teenager. In other words, it’s like the mind, both conscious and unconscious, of the true artist — whether an artist of images, of words, of sounds: they all come to The Pharmacy to play, and incredible things happen. If you’re creative and/or crave the fruits of creativity, you have to find The Pharmacy in Springfield. (I suspect the name “The Pharmacy” was chosen largely because the old building was indeed a pharmacy, but the founders chose wisely in that it has once again become a place of healing [spiritual and soulful], and the name further suggests the mind-opening and mind-altering effects of certain kinds of pharmacology [some legal, some not].)

I mentioned the readings done by UIS’s student creative writers, and I should add that they were quite good and made for a most enjoyable evening, especially when combined with macaroni and cheese lovingly prepared by the students’ teacher, Meagan Cass. Meagan recently received the good — and much-deserved — news that her story “Girlhunt, Spring 1999” was nominated by Devil’s Lake for a Pushcart Prize. Treat yourself right, and take a few minutes to read “Girlhunt, Spring 1999.”

On my own writing front, since completing the manuscript of my novel “An Untimely Frost” back in June, I’ve been writing a series of loosely connected short stories (four thus far), and one, “Primitive Scent,” was picked up by The Tulane Review, while another, “Crowsong for the Stricken,” was accepted for presentation at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 this coming February. I’ll also be presenting a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel at the conference as part of the PsyArt panel. In other news, my publisher, Punkin House, has added Barnes & Noble to its sellers, along with Amazon, and as such a Nook version of Men of Winter is now available. Punkin House’s CEO Amy Ferrell has also informed me that an audio-book edition is in the works.

Meanwhile, the article I was invited to write for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series has come out in #54: “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.” I wrote about using the collected letters of Washington Irving to assist in capturing the narrative voice I wanted for “An Untimely Frost,” whose first-person protagonist is Washington Irving-esque. Also, the interview with me that Beth Gilstrap wrote for The Fourth River has come out, thanks in no small part to the journal’s fiction editor Robert Yune. Beth talked to me about both Men of Winter and Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella that Punkin House will bring out in 2012, paired with a collection of twelve previously published stories.

I’m at work on a fifth short story, though not of the same fictional ilk as the previous four, but I also need to get my Gass paper shipshape for the Louisville conference. Once those two projects are completed, I’ll turn my writing attention in full to the next novel I have in mind, a work that will be connected with “Primitive Scent” and “Crowsong for the Stricken.” So many tales to tell, so little time … but hopefully enough.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work

Hearst Center reading, and a busy literary October

Posted in October 2011 by Ted Morrissey on October 2, 2011

I’ve just recently returned from Cedar Falls, Iowa, where I had the honor of reading for Final Thursday Press‘s series at the Hearst Center for the Arts. Jim O’Loughlin, the publisher (and editor and just about everything else) of FTP, organized the reading; and I was originally put in contact with Jim via Jeremy Schraffenberger, whom I’ve known for a number of years thanks to our mutual involvement in the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. The Hearst Center, which is the former home of poet James Hearst, is a wonderful venue, with its art gallery and performance stage, among other features; and there was a sizable and attentive crowd that came out for the reading. I read a slightly edited and pared down version of the fifth chapter of Men of Winter.

Toss in some great conversation along with terrific pizza and Iowa’s own Millstream beer (plus the late-September beauty of northern Iowa foliage), and it was a memorable trip to be sure.

Speaking of Men of Winter, my publisher, Amy Ferrell of Punkin House, has been hard at work for the last several months reorganizing the press and expanding the house’s markets; as a consequence, my novel is available once again via Amazon, with the added bonus of a Kindle version, plus it’s now available through Barnes & Noble, including a Nook version.  Punkin House will be bringing out my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God in 2012.

While I’m on the topic of my writing (fascinating as it is), I’ll mention that I’ve been circulating the manuscript of my novel An Untimely Frost, which I finished over the summer; and I’ve been working in earnest on a conceptual story collection, of which I have two stories out and about, hopefully making friends, and I’ve been writing a third (highly experimental) story. Right now I’m envisioning a collection of thirteen interrelated tales, but obviously we’re still a long way from home.

I stated in the title of this post that it’ll be a busy literary October in Springfield, Illinois, and indeed it will. Here’s a quick overview of a few of the upcoming events:

Monday, October 3: Poet Stephen Frech will be reading at The Pharmacy at 6:30.

Thursday, October 13: Poet Erin Elizabeth Smith will be reading at The Pharmacy at 7:00.

Thursday, October 27: Quiddity lit journal’s Midwestern Gothic Costume Ball, featuring Jodee Stanley, editor of Ninth Letter. Festivities will begin at 7:00 in the historic (and haunted) Brinkerhoff Home on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield.

Friday, October 28: A horror reading by Meagan Cass, of the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Creative Writing Program, at Andiamo Cafe, 6:00.

October  in general and Halloween in particular have been more or less my favorite time of year for-,well, ever; and this 2011 installment sounds like it’s going to be a hoot. (I’m a big fan of winter, too, but it’s always diminished by Christmas and New Year’s — however, not so the fall.)

Before closing I want to add that I’ve been attending some terrific showings sponsored by Prairie Art Alliance. Check out their events and exhibits page to see what’s on the horizon (that’s a landscape reference … get it?).

One last thing (because apparently people have been concerned): I did, at long last, finish reading War and Peace. I enjoyed the seven months of my reading life that I devoted to the infamous classic, but I must say Tolstoy’s longish treatise on historical theory was not the most emotionally satisfying way to conclude the (roughly) 1,200-page novel — though I understand what Tolstoy was up to, and as an experimentalist myself I appreciate that he was experimenting with genre and form. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. One of the first things I did after finishing War and Peace: read a wonderful novella by Denis JohnsonTrain Dreams — finished it in only two glorious sittings.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding

The Winter’s Tale and other literary happenings

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 24, 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last evening in Bloomington, Illinois. I’ve been attending the Festival for years and am always impressed and pleased with its productions, some of which are risk-taking, like 2008’s Titus Andronicus, which channeled a kind of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome motif while employing a heavy-metal soundtrack (and, for my money, it worked), or last season’s The Tempest, which suggested that the entirety of the play was taking place in some sort of ethereal space and not on solid ground (I liked it) — while other productions are much more conservative in their staging. This Winter’s Tale, directed by Deb Alley, tended toward the conservative.

The most obvious manifestation of this conservatism was the deletion of Time, personified, from the text. Sometimes an actual character, sometimes a chorus, Time opens the fourth act by emphasizing the swift passage of time (in the context of The Winter’s Tale, sixteen years evaporate in an instant) and transitioning into the spring/summer section of the play. The Festival production eliminates this first scene of Act IV altogether, and 4.2’s exchange between Polixenes and Camillo serves as the transitional device. In more traditional readings of the play, time stands still in the nation of Sicilia, where the action opens (and closes), but the sixteen years have progressed in Bohemia, the site of 4.2 through 4.4, and thus the characters have aged. However, with the excision of Time and 4.1 in the Festival production, time’s passage has not been arrested in Sicilia, evidenced by the graying of hair and faltering of vision among the characters when we return to Sicilia for Act V.

The removal of this whimsical element in the play (that is, Time’s appearance and his freezing of time in the winter section of the play) lays the groundwork for a more conservative climax, which virtually eliminates Shakespeare’s ambiguity from the climactic event, and in my mind simplifies and makes less interesting the event. In the beginning of the play, Sicilia’s Queen Hermione is unfairly accused of adultery and is imprisoned by her suddenly insane (with jealousy?) husband, King Leontes; and we are told that because of the ordeal, Hermione perishes. In the final scene, 5.3, after Leontes has been reunited with his daughter Perdita (it’s a long story — go see the play), he is presented with a statue of Hermione — a statue which shortly comes to life. It is unclear in the text of the play if we are witnessing a supernatural event (a la the freezing of time) or if Hermione has merely been in hiding somewhere for sixteen years and is reintroduced as a “statue” for dramatic effect (dramatic within the context of the action of the play).

The Festival’s production definitely privileges the more conservative interpretation; through the actions of the characters, especially Paulina, the alleged maker of the statue, and through the graying of Hermione’s hair, it seems clear that the flesh-and-blood Hermione has only been playing at being a statue. The whimsical, the supernatural has been expunged from the scene, which is an extension of its being expunged from the play as a whole. The conservatism of the Festival’s interpretation shows up in other, more subtle ways. For instance, the contrast between the winter-Sicilia-tragedy half of the play and the summer-Bohemia-comedy half is evident in the costuming (especially the palette’s shift from largely monochromic to widely colorful) and the set (especially the lighting’s shift from blue spectrum to orange spectrum). While costuming and set/lighting do suggest the contrast, one has to look closely to see it. Another conservative choice would be the physical absence of the bear that famously chases Antigonus from the stage in 3.3. According to the Norton Shakespeare’s footnotes, in the Bard’s day an actual bear very well may have been brought onto the stage to “chase” Antigonus, but

[m]odern productions vary significantly in their representation of the bear. Some strive for realism, having a bearskin-clad actor or a mechanical likeness of a bear pass across a darkened stage illuminated only by the occasional lightning bolt. Other productions are more stylized, suggesting a bear by the obvious artifice of a mask or symbol.

The Festival removes a step or two further, and the bear is represented merely by its roaring and the terrorized expression of Antigonus as he runs (unsuccessfully) for his life.

One may argue that by eliminating elements like personified Time and an actor in a bear-suit, the Festival production is being the opposite of conservative — that it’s straying from more traditional, more textbound versions of The Winter’s Tale; and, on the one hand, that’s true, but I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Festival’s interpretation is more conservative (that is, less fanciful) than Shakespeare’s vision of the story. I have some ideas as to why these choices were made, and how they affect our overarching reading of the play — but that sounds like the stuff of an academic paper.

To be clear, I enjoyed the Festival production very much, and I encourage directors to stray from traditional staging choices and to play with the text, even if those choices and those edits seem, to me, less whimsical than what the playwright had in mind in the first place.

Anyway, the Festival is also doing Romeo and Juliet, and I plan to see that within the next week or so.

In June, I happily participated in the Poets & Painters event at the H. D. Smith Gallery in the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois. The event was a joint venture between the Prairie Art Alliance and Springfield Poets and Writers (of which I’m a proud member). I was planning on providing a link to the poems and artwork that were presented that evening (including my poem “Anima”), but the page seems to be missing in action at the moment. If it rematerializes, I’ll update this post.

This month I’ve been participating in a poetry workshop organized by Lisa Higgs and Tracy Zeman (a link to Tracy’s poem “Grass for Bone” in Beloit Poetry Journal) at the Vachel Lindsay Home. Unfortunately I had to miss the second of four sessions, but I’ve been enjoying them very much and getting a lot out of them. I’ve mainly been focusing on writing some new short stories and putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my newest novel, “An Untimely Frost,” but I did write a poem for the workshop; and in general Lisa and Tracy have had me thinking about language in ways I wouldn’t have been if not for the workshop this summer.

The workshop session I missed was time well spent nonetheless as I met with the Friends of Sherman Library book club July 12 to discuss my novel Men of Winter. It was great fun to talk with avid and enthusiastic readers, and they indulged me to read my brand-new short story “Crowsong for the Stricken,” which was also fun (for me at least). In addition to “Crowsong” I’ve also written a story titled “Primitive Scent,” and I’m at work on a third new story. I have in mind the next novel I want to begin writing, but now I’m thinking of postponing that project to write a collection of stories all set in the same weird little Midwestern village, the setting of these three new stories. We’ll see.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through War and Peace (on page about 840 out of 1,200), and also Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (for my nightstand read) — but I did take a few days away from Tolstoy to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), and liked it very much: funny, haunting, touching — all the things one would expect from a Nobel Laureate.

tedmorrissey.com

Readings for Men of Winter scheduled, and some new titles

Posted in March 2011 by Ted Morrissey on March 13, 2011

I’ve been actively trying to schedule some readings for Men of Winter, and I have two local dates set: One will be Wednesday, April 20, at Sherman Public Library, my “home away from home.” I’ll be reading along with my University of Illinois at Springfield colleague Lisa Higgs, whose collection of sonnets, Lodestar, has recently been released by Finishing Line Press. Lisa and I are working on setting up additional dual dates, but my other scheduled reading will be solo at Benedictine University at Springfield Thursday, May 26. The dates are listed on my Readings page at tedmorrissey.com. I read the first chapter of Men of Winter in Louisville last month, at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900; and I plan to read the first chapter at Sherman Public Library. However, I’ll do a different selection at BUS in May.

Not to dissuade any readers from coming to the Sherman Library event, but there is a video available of my reading chapter 1 at both Vimeo and YouTube (a slightly abridged version).

On the writing front, I was interviewed by The Fourth River, which (if I understand correctly) will run online this summer some time. The interviewer, Beth Gilstrap, talked with me about both Men of Winter and Weeping with an Ancient God, my novella that is slated for publication, along with a collection of short stories, next spring by Punkin House. Beth was a capable interviewer, asking intelligent and interesting questions (I only hope I responded in kind).

Meanwhile, I continue to work on the Authoress, the project name for my novel in progress. I’ve really been enjoying the writing process. I recently reached a climactic section that I’ve been working toward for 200 pages or thereabouts, and as such I’ve started getting up earlier just to leave myself a little extra time in the morning to write; if I get up at about 5:15, I can carve out 40 to 45 minutes to write, Monday through Friday. Generally, then, three or four evenings a week I can type up my handwritten pages produced in the mornings. It’s hardly a lightning-fast process, but with about two years’ work on the manuscript, I’m at the 375-page mark.

Having finished and truly enjoyed Anna Karenina, I dove right into War and Peace a couple of weeks ago. It’s taken me a little longer to develop an affinity for the text than it did for Anna Karenina, which happened from the first page, but I’m about 130 pages into War and Peace and am beginning to feel connected to the characters and the storyline. I think two features delayed my emotional attachment to the novel: one, Tolstoy introduces a plethora of characters in the opening chapters, and it was difficult for me to keep them all straight; also, he uses a lot of French in these same chapters, which is footnoted, but I found it cumbersome to keep glancing down to the bottom of the page, then back to my place in the text — as often Tolstoy has his characters speaking French, but the exposition between bits of dialogue is of course in English (Russian), or the characters shift back and forth between French and English/Russian, sometimes within the same sentence; so one must keeping jumping back and forth between the text of the novel and the translators’ footnotes. There is some French in Anna Karenina, of course, but it’s not so extensive, and not ladled on so thickly in the opening pages when one is trying to get one’s bearings. The French has slowed to a trickle in the last few chapters I’ve read of War and Peace, and that has helped me to embrace the novel more … affectionately.

I’ve decided that one of the things I should do with this blog is highlight some recent works of fiction and poetry that are available. One of my favorite pastimes when on campus at UIS is to go to Brookens Library and browse through the newly arrived books, many from small-press and university publishers. One book of poetry that I’ve found very engaging is Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book, which is the product of a group experiment in poetic composition. Another notable title is Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories, by Lydia Peelle. I’d also like to recommend two books from Coffee House Press: Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas, by Andrew Ervin; and Horse, Flower, Bird, an odd but engaging collection of very brief, fairy-tale-esque stories, by Kate Bernheimer (art byRikki Ducornet).

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work

Notes on the Louisville Conference 2011, and visiting poets

Posted in February 2011 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2011

For a while I wasn’t posting much to this blog because frankly, in the depth of winter, there wasn’t much happening of note in terms of my reading and writing life — but the last few weeks have been so busy that I haven’t had time to keep up with documenting them. I will try to catch but will no doubt be giving people and things shorter shrift than they deserve.

I have just returned from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held annually at the University of Louisville, and I want to report on some of the people I met and presentations I attended. First, however, in the interest of chronology I’m going to write about a trio of poets who, individually, visited Springfield over a two-week period. This no doubt is where the short shrifting will commence.

The first was Carrie Oeding, a writing fellow at the University of Houston. I was among a group who dined with her at Augie’s Front Burner in downtown Springfield. I enjoyed her discussing some of her writing and teaching techniques, and also the new sequence of poems she’s just beginning to work on. Carrie’s first book of poems, Our List of Solutions, is forthcoming from 42 Miles Press, a new addition to Indiana University Press. The publication is the result of her winning the 2010 Lester M. Wolfson Poetry Award. Some of her work appears in The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Book 15, available as a free download from Plastique.

Another poet visitor to our fair city was Jayson Iwen of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In addition to the dinner scene (at Lake Pointe Grill), I was able to attend Jayson’s presentation on cross-genre writing, which was especially interesting in that I consider myself something of a cross-genre writer. I enjoyed his easy-going, yet knowledgeable, manner. Among his published works is Six Trips in Two Directions, a poetry collection from Emergency Press. A brief excerpt from Six Trips can be read on the Woodland Pattern Book Center’s site. Another, longer, excerpt is available from webdelsol.com.

Last but far from least, I was able to attend a reading by Emma Bartholomew at historic Brinkerhoff Home on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield, as part of the Quiddity visiting writers and artists series. Emma’s reading was delightful as she focused in particular on her interest in cartography and the poems that her interest has inspired. Some of the London-born poet’s work is available from 3:AM Magazine. Emma’s reading at Seersucker Live is also availabe on YouTube. It is very similar to her reading at Benedictine, which is fortunate because it was quite wonderful.

 

Continuing my short shrifting, I have just returned from the three-day Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. I attended and/or chaired several fascinating panels on a variety of topics, including experimental poetry, contemporary narrative theory, and trauma theory (which is one of my chief scholarly interests — it appears to be gaining momentum as there were several trauma-theory-related presentations). I also was able to hear some terrific prose and poetry readings, including Mike Barrett’s highly experimental — and imaginative! — work from his collection “Recto Verso”; Brent Jason Royster’s prose — and perfectly square, geometrically — poetry from his manuscript “A Rock and Two Boxes”; Mario Chard’s poems in progress from his “Caballero” series (at the risk of being redundant, quite wonderful); and Victoria Brockmeier’s readings from her manuscript “Magpie” (definitely risking redundancy, also quite wonderful). Just to say a touch more: Mario’s work focuses on immigrant experiences in the United States; and Victoria’s poetry is inspired in large part by classical mythology.

I also attended a reading by poet Rae Armantrout, winner of the 2010 Pulitizer Prize in poetry for her collection Versed (Wesleyan, 2009). She was relaxed and funny, making for a nice rapport with her audience. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend their readings due to scheduling conflicts, but I was happy to see my friend Jeremy (J. D.) Schraffenberger, poet and assistant poetry editor of North American Review; and also to meet poet Ewa Chrusciel, whose collection Strata will be out in just a few weeks from Emergency Press.

I read  the first chapter of Men of Winter at the conference. Some readings/book signings for the novel seem to be taking shape, but I’ll wait until I have some firm dates before discussing them here. Meanwhile, there appears to be some interest in my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God, which Punkin House plans to bring out in spring 2012.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter (purchase at Punkin Books or Amazon)

Pathfinding (my Punkin House author’s blog)

Writer Meagan Cass in town, and some War and Peace

Posted in February 2011 by Ted Morrissey on February 13, 2011

This past week I was delighted to be among a group who took writer Meagan Cass to dinner at Bella Milano in Springfield, Illinois. The table arrangement did not facilitate my being able to talk much writerly shop with Meagan, but she was warm and witty, all the things a young visiting writer is supposed to be, and we all stayed long after the meal was concluded to continue to talk, in fact about three hours all together — so clearly no one was in a rush to leave her company. Earlier in the day, at a presentation I was unable to attend, she spoke of contemporary narrative’s forebears, like myth and fairytale, and how they can inspire and inform technique today. I was able to touch upon her topic at dinner, and she mentioned that her story “The Candy House of Roscoe, New York” (published in Carve Magazine) makes use of fairytale tropes in particular. I brought up her “Candy House” story as I had read it earlier in the day and enjoyed it very much. One of Meagan’s stories that I enjoyed even more is “My Highest Recommendation” (published in Minnetonka Review). The story is funny and touching and intriguing — all the things a great short story ought to be, which is no doubt why it won the journal’s 2007 Editor’s Prize.

Meagan has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD from University of Louisville Lafayette, and she lives in California, where one of her interests, apparently, is the LA Feminist Book Club.

I finished reading Anna Karenina last weekend, and even though my life runneth over with great books I’m eager to read I had to run out and purchase War and Peace, as I’m still very much in a Tolstoy kind of mood. Our local Barnes & Noble had several versions available, and I took several minutes to look them over before deciding which I preferred. I’d read the Constance Garnett translation of Anna Karenina and obviously liked it a lot, and her version of War and Peace was available in a couple of different editions; but ultimately I decided on the newer Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, published by Vintage Classics. So far I feel I chose wisely. I like the liveliness of the translation itself, and I appreciate many of the edition’s special features, like a list of principal characters, including their various nicknames and their relationships to one another — my only complaint is the book’s weight: holy cow, it’s softback, but it must weigh twelve pounds; it’s like holding a bowling ball while you read. I feel like I should wear steel-toed shoes while lugging it around just in case it slips from my grip.

On the writing front, I continue to work on my novel in progress, the Authoress, and I continue to like what’s happening on the page. I’ve still yet to set up a reading in association with the release of Men of Winter. I spoke to the owner of a coffeehouse in Galesburg, Illinois (Carl Sandburg’s and my hometown), and he sounded very enthusiastic about hosting a reading. In fact, I got off the phone thinking it was a done deal and it was just a matter of finding a date. He wanted me to email him further information, which I did immediately … it’s been going on two weeks and he hasn’t responded. Who knows? On a happier note, my publisher, Punkin House, has found a major distributor for its books, and I’m looking forward to finding out more details. In a couple of weeks I’ll be at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, where I will, among other things, read the first chapter of Men of Winter.

Also, an editor has expressed an interest in interviewing me with regards to my novella Weeping with an Ancient God, an excerpt of which was published in The Final Draft last fall under the title “Melvill in the Marquesas” (since archived at this blog); the interview is supposed to take place later this month or beginning of March, but we’ll have to see what happens there. I’m hoping to bring out the novella along with a collection of previously published stories later this year.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter (purchase print paperback edition)

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work (my Punkin House author’s blog)

‘Melvill in the Marquesas’ archived

Posted in January 2011, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 29, 2011

“Melvill in the Marquesas” is the first section of my novella Weeping with an Ancient God, a fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s encounter with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands in 1842. This excerpt was originally published in The Final Draft, an online journal edited by Bob Rothberg, in fall 2010. The link to the excerpt has since gone dead, so I’ve decided to archive it here. I hope to see Weeping with an Ancient God appear along with a collection of stories by the end of the year.

~

Melvill in the Marquesas

July 13, 1842

Dripping.

It is the dripping and the insensible voices which bring him up from the depths.  Darkness and heat.  He tries to feel the pitch of the sea, now as familiar as the expansion of his lungs, but there is no movement.  Becalmed, he thinks.  He cautiously sniffs the air, anticipating the stench of boiling fat.  But there is a sweetness instead:  thick, oily.

He remembers.

Panic begins to surge in him, like the ocean’s surf, like the fever he has had . . . how many days?  The number will not come to him.  He wants to rise, to step over the darkshape bodies, to run outside, past the dripping cataract to the starlit ocean.

It is all impossible.  He heard their cannibal voices; at least two are awake.  And Toby?  He reaches out and touches the coarse cloth of Toby’s shirt and he hears the familiar sleep breathing of his friend.  Like so many nights in the belly of the Acushnet.  The dripping and Toby’s breathing take him back for a moment:  the roll of the ocean, the stinking blubber, the footfalls above on deck . . . and something else.

Toby moves in his sleep—perhaps he is fitful too—and Toby’s hand brushes against his side.  He lightly takes hold of Toby’s arm, feels the hairs at the wristbone, the slow steady pulse.  The rhythm of Toby’s blood calms him.  He tries to turn toward his friend, to watch his dark outline, but the pain in his leg will not allow it.  Shards of agony vibrate through his leg, which has become like wood or stone.  He tries to imagine dragging the swollen limb the many miles to the sea.  It is impossible.

The cataract and Toby’s pulse become synchronous, and Melvill achieves a kind of sleep.

It is daytime when he realizes the old man is talking to him.  Melvill is the only one still lying on the floor of the hut, which is rectangular with a bamboo and thatched ceiling about fifteen feet high at its centered apex.  Along the walls are baskets, earthen pots, woven mats.  Toby is gone.  It is unsettling again to see the fading ink on the old man’s almost naked body:  the bluegreen vines twisting along his still-muscular arms, the disintegrating bluegreen triangle on his forehead, the sinking ovals on his chest that make his nipples dark bull’s-eyes.  The old man repeats himself for perhaps the fourth time.  Melvill understands only two words.  “Hermes,” the way they have decided to pronounce his name; and “Korykory,” the young cannibal who seems to reside in the old man’s hut.

Melvill tries to stand but his leg provides him no leverage.  He believes he may topple when he feels Korykory lift him to a standing position on his good leg then deftly turn and hoist him onto his back.  Melvill is half a head taller and his bare toes nearly drag on the floor.  Korykory’s wavy brown hair is shaved in arcs over each ear and tapers to a point between his shoulder blades, where the shapes of longwinged birds in flight have been tattooed.

Outside Korykory lifts him higher on his back.  Men and women are calmly busy with the demands of the new day.  All these many months around the islands of the south Pacific and the stark nakedness of the natives still surprises him.  It seems the Typees prefer a short white cloth which hangs from their waist, or even more simply broad waxy leaves.  Korykory carries him past the cataract to where the stream is calmer.  Melvill is relieved to see Toby floating on his back in the clear water, his bare white chest bobbing like a seaduck among the other dark-skinned bathers.  Melvill wants to call out to Toby but he does not want to do anything to provoke the Typees.  Half a dozen somber warriors, with long spears and sharktooth necklaces, kneel on either side of the stream.

Korykory takes him beyond the pool of bathers about a hundred yards to a place where the stream begins to pick up speed again.  Next to the stream is a patch of high green reeds.  Korykory places him at the edge of the reeds and motions for him to proceed in.  Melvill is confused.  Korykory talks to him with patient meaningless words.  Then the native wades into the reeds himself, urging Melvill along.  The pliant reeds, which come to Melvill’s stomach, snap back after being trod upon.  Korykory squats with his back to the swift running water, and Melvill understands.  Korykory stands and tries to unbutton Melvill’s trousers.

He pushes his hand away, like a bothersome child’s.  “I’m with you.”

Korykory shrugs then moves his tappa cloth aside and urinates a thick stream into the water.  The islander waits at the edge of the reeds for Melvill to finish.  Korykory points back to the cluster of huts and the bathers.  Melvill climbs on and is carried toward the pool.  His leg is throbbing from the exertion.

As he is carried along Melvill views the mountains, lavender at their peaks, that Toby and he traversed for three days.  This is correct:  three days.  And the discomfort in his right leg began on the morning of their second day of flight from Nukuheva Bay.  By nightfall the discomfort had become the debilitating pain he suffers still.  So that is the number that would not come to him:  four days of pain.  In spite of his bad leg Melvill feels better that his head is clearer now, the fever abated somewhat.

At the bathing pool he sees Toby wrapped in a long swath of the white tappa, like a haphazardly placed toga.  The old Typee woman who lives in the hut where they slept is holding the bundle of Toby’s clothes and is having an animated dialogue with his friend.

“But, please, I need my clothing, at the very least my trousers.”  Toby is holding the toga together at the shoulder.

Korykory places Melvill down at the edge of the pool and the old woman gestures at Melvill’s checked shirt and duck trousers.

“I believe the witch wants your things too, old fellow,” says Toby.  “They probably would prefer not to cook us in our breeches—we will be too tough no doubt.”

As if she can understand the nature of their conversation, the old woman renews her efforts to explain and screws her face into a foul expression and touches her nose, meanwhile spitting out some Typee expression.

Melvill says, “I believe she is telling us she finds our sailor’s smell disagreeable.  Perhaps she is offering to launder out the sweat and sea salt.”

“Or she intends to burn and bury everything, part and parcel, forthwith.  In either case it appears we have no say in the matter.”

The stony warriors have formed a loose circle around the four of them, Toby and Melvill, the old woman and Korykory.  One of the warriors takes hold of Toby’s bare arm and urges him away from the water’s edge.  Melvill pulls his shirt off over his head then sits on the grassy bank to remove the rest of his clothing.  Korykory hands the wad to the old woman and he scoops up Melvill like his new bride and wades into the pool, releasing him when the stream is waist deep.

The water is cool and clean and a great relief to Melvill.  The buoyancy relieves much of the pain from his swollen leg.  Melvill ducks his head then allows it to bob to the calm surface.  The droplets that run from his scalp and ears taste of his own salt.  With the temporary relief of his leg Melvill realizes the profundity of his hunger and thirst.  For three days Toby and he ate only their ration of a dry mouthful of sea biscuit—“sailor’s nuts”—each noon hour.  The breadfruits they believed were in abundance beyond Nukuheva Bay were not to be found in the wild mountains.  They had agreed to refrain from breaking into ship’s stores and risk alerting their mates of their plan to take flight.

Water was also scarce.  At the end of their second day in the mountains they discovered a narrow stream.  It relieved their thirst, which was terrible and close to undoing them, especially Melvill, who was burdened with fever too.  But there was still no food and the biscuit was nearly gone.  Also they needed shelter from the sun and periodic rains.

They knew the little stream would lead down the mountain to a settlement—but which natives?  The Happars, of whom very little was known; or the Typees, whose cannibalism was infamous throughout the south Pacific.  They had no choice but to follow the stream.  Turning back was out of the question.  The penalty for jumping ship was severe:  flogging and treatment befitting a slave for the remainder of the voyage.  Their shipmates would not venture into cannibal terrain, no matter what reward was offered by Captain Pease; but a band of Nukuhevas could be easily commissioned for the job.  Three or four pounds of Brazilian tobacco and a modest supply of shot and powder would probably turn them out like a pack of red hounds.  In the mountains several times Toby and he were startled by a wild boar in the undergrowth which they mistook for a Nukuheva ambush.

Finally, descending from the mountains, they saw a fruitful valley and its huts with steeply pitched thatch roofs.  It was midday, the tropical sun high and hard.  For a great length of time—Melvill was beyond keeping track of it—they stayed under cover while Toby observed the distant goings on and tried to determine Happar or Typee or some other indigenous tribe.  They choked down the last crumbs of biscuit, which seemed to push Toby into a decision.  “I must know, old fellow, I must.”  And he rushed down into the valley.  Melvill watched his friend half stagger out of the shadow of the mountain, then he attempted to follow him.

His memory beyond this point is patchy.  He recalls falling and struggling up, many times.  He is helped—by Toby, he first believes, then realizes it is a girl and boy, dark and naked, on either side of him.  Then they are in a hut, the brown faces surrounding them.  They are given fresh water (so sweet!) and a kind of citrus mush to eat.  “Poeepoee.”  Toby is attempting to explain who they are and that they have come in peace—which must be obvious from their half-dead, unarmed condition.  It is night, the only light from the bluish glow of a taper outside the hut’s opening, when Toby and he come to understand that they have arrived in the valley of the Typees.  Melvill is too exhausted and feverish to be panicstricken.  The knowledge is like a lead weight in his brain, sinking deep as nearly all the natives exit the hut and he and Toby are left to sleep among these cannibals.

After his bath, Melvill, also in white tappa now, is taken to the hut and seated next to Toby at what seems like a place of honor.  They sit on woven mats in a corner while a dozen natives eat their breakfast facing them in a semicircle.  The hut is spacious, perhaps forty feet by twenty, and the interior walls reveal the simple but sturdy bamboo construction.  Here and there pegs protrude from the crisscross of bamboo so that various utensils hang on the walls along with bunches of breadfruits and bananas.  Melvill and Toby are each given a bowl of poeepoee plus another of coconut meat and a half coconut shell filled with a citrus juice.  Eating with their fingers the tender chunks of coconut are not a problem but the poeepoee is another matter.  The day before, starving, they scooped it and poured it like a stringy soup, making a mess of themselves.  This morning Marheyo, the old man who is their host, tries to show them the proper technique.  Using only one finger he twirls it in the bowl nearly up to the last knuckle until a thick ball of poeepoee is wrapped around; then he sticks the entire finger in his mouth and pulls it out sucked clean.  Melvill discovers the technique requires practice.

The natives have begun several conversations and are paying little attention to Toby and Melvill.

Toby swirls his shell of juice before drinking it.  “How’s the leg holding up?”  Toby has raked his reddish blond hair straight back.  Like Melvill’s, it is long enough to bind in a ponytail.  Toby’s beard is patchy while Melvill’s is dark and thick.

“Not well I’m afraid.  Perhaps rest will help.”  Melvill finishes chewing a chunk of coconut meat.  “Why are we receiving service at the captain’s table?”

“I can’t figure it—unless they are fattening us for the feast.”

Melvill had had the same thought.  “All this trouble just to murder us.”

“The cattleman and the butcher are not a lazy lot.”

When breakfast is finished the old woman, Tinor, places all the dishes into a large wickerwork basket and takes them from the hut.  Marheyo speaks earnestly to Melvill.  The old man repeatedly takes hold of his own right leg, kneading the flesh.

“Yes, my limb is ill,” says Melvill, lost.

Marheyo gestures to Toby that it is time to leave the hut with the other guests.  The native waves his long brown fingers like he is shooing a cat.  When it is just Melvill and the old man together, he speaks emphatically again and points to the mat where Melvill had slept the night before.  Melvill understands to move there.  Marheyo gently pushes him to a reclining position; and he walks to the hut’s opening.  Maybe he merely wants me to rest, thinks Melvill, already feeling sleepy.  But in a minute or two Marheyo appears to be greeting someone.  Melvill watches the old man’s back, with its withered fish tattoos, as he speaks to the new arrival about Melvill’s leg, all the while massaging his own leg.

A kind of shaman? wonders Melvill.

Marheyo steps aside to let the visitor enter.  Melvill is surprised to see a young girl—fourteen or fifteen perhaps—carrying a tortoise-shell bowl.  She is the most beautiful island girl Melvill has seen in an ocean filled with vibrant beautiful girls.  Marheyo seems to be introducing her.  He says her name “Fayaway” several times and each time the old man touches his chest:  illustrating her closeness to his heart?  Fayaway is thin with long umberblack hair.  She appears to be free of tattooing except for two dots at the crests of her upper lip.

Melvill is up on his elbows.  Fayaway kneels beside him and puts her hand on his shoulder to urge him to lie flat.  There is a bracelet of small blue feathers on her wrist.  She moves the tappa away exposing his swollen leg from hip to foot.  His skin appears almost phosphorescent in the shaded interior of the hut.  The girl gently explores the leg, moving her light fingers over this thigh and knee and shin bone.  She and Marheyo speak for a moment.  To explain their conversation, Marheyo takes a banana from a bunch hanging on the wall.  He uses his bony fingers to show Melvill the yellow skin is smooth and unblemished, then the old man peels the skin and breaks the banana in half, exposing the tiny black seeds inside.

“Yes, there’s no outward sign of my distress, no laceration, nor boil, nor prick—so the problem must be inward.”  He can sense the fever is beginning to overtake his reason again.

Marheyo has a parting word for Fayaway then he leaves his hut eating the banana.  It is a bright day and the old man appears to be swallowed by the light.

Fayaway dips her small hands into the bowl and they come out glistening with an oily gelatin.  Starting with Melvill’s toes she slowly rubs the slick ointment into his skin.  Frequently she glances at Melvill’s face, perhaps to see if she is hurting him.  Melvill is struck by the similarities between her glittering eyes and her half-erect nipples:  the same size, the same rich brown.  The four perfect circles dance like alien moons in the sky of his feverish mind.

As Fayaway’s hands, which are now his entire reality, move past his knee Melvill cannot subdue the sexual arousal he is feeling.  He hopes that it is hidden beneath the folds of cloth but senses it is not.  Her hands move over his thigh with the same slow rhythm.  At first the ointment was cool but now a penetrating heat has begun at his foot and ankle, and is moving up at the same pace as Fayaway’s massaging fingers.  When she reaches his hip she gently lifts his leg enough to coat the underside in the gelatin.  When she is finished Fayaway instructs him to close his eyes by pointing to them with her slender fingers and closing her own eyes for a moment.

Melvill does as he is instructed.  Soon his entire leg is engulfed in the heat.  His body is totally relaxed, lifeless, except for his twitching organ, uncomfortable under the folded tappa.  He wants to uncover himself to relieve the pressure but senses Fayaway is still at his side.  No, not Fayaway . . . Madeline.  He believes he can smell the prostitute’s pungent city perfume, can feel the irregularities in the feather mattress of her New Bedford boardinghouse room.  Then why not pull back the sheet?  Propriety is not an issue, only price, and he has what remains of Captain Pease’s advance.  Eighty-four dollars minus—?

But propriety is an issue for a reason he cannot recall—only its vitalness.  And there is the dripping . . . as the icy rain overflows Madeline’s clogged gutter.  Dripping, yes, but aboard the Acushnet now . . . the arousal still pulsating with the heat-rhythm of his leg.  The dark figures below deck, the ominous whispering, the ubiquitous stench of the cooking whale sperm.  There is the leaden weight of threat on his chest—worse than fear because fear is fleeting.  This threat lingers, like a cancer, and there is no escape at sea. . . .

Strong hands are upon him and Melvill strikes out.  Once, twice.  But his arms are restrained as he is lifted.  He wants to shout out but he cannot recall to whom.  He finds his captor’s face.  Korykory.  The Typee carries him outside.  The sunlight, although partially filtered through the tropical green canopy, is painful to his eyes.  Korykory transports him to the bathing pool for the second time that day.  He helps Melvill wash the ointment from his leg.  In places the gelatin has turned white and caky.  Melvill attempts to hide his buoyant semierect penis.

Still floating, Melvill feels weak but the pain in his leg has subsided.  Korykory points to a grove of trees and says something about Toby.  Melvill thinks he understands.  “Yes, take me to Toby, please.”  He is helped from the stream, then he covers himself in the white toga and climbs upon Korykory’s back.  The momentary muscular strain causes the native’s tattooed birds to take a single wingstroke.  When they are past the boundary of trees Melvill sees a grassy clearing in which there are several huts of varying sizes, including one that is several times larger than the average.  Melvill notes that many of these huts are built on a foundation of high stone slabs.  Korykory takes him directly to the largest hut, the one that dominates the clearing, and uses footholds that are notched into the stone base to carry Melvill to the entrance.  Melvill is amazed at Korykory’s vitality.  There were strong men on the Acushnet, men who could do the heavy work of the sea for hours without tiring; but the strongest among them could not have carried Melvill the distance that Korykory has and then ended the trip with a vertical climb up eight feet of rock.

The front wall of the hut is recessed a few yards so that the stone base forms a portico, which is protected by the extended thatch roof of the hut.

Korykory, only slightly winded, waves his hand before the enormous hut and says, “Ti.”

Melvill, balancing on his good leg and Korykory’s shoulder, repeats the word and Korykory happily affirms the connection.  Korykory suddenly assumes an air of seriousness and seems to resist an impulse to step back.  Melvill realizes that a Typee has come from the hut.  The man is considerably older than Melvill but is made as muscularly as Korykory or any of the young warriors he has seen.  He is richly decorated in tattoos, more so even than the old-man host.  He puts his hand on his bare flat stomach and says, “Mehevi.”  He steps aside and invites Melvill into the Ti.  For the short distance Melvill elects to hobble inside with Korykory’s support rather than be carried.  A tobacco-smoke smell reaches him immediately in the dark hut.  The scent is pleasant, although distinct from the cuts of tobacco he is used to.  The rich smoke seems to be impeding the adjustment of his eyes.  Not quite seeing them, he can sense the dark shapes sitting or reclining on the floor.  Melvill has the disconcerting feeling that these shapes are animals peering up at him, wolves and predatory cats.  In the entire hut filled with bodies he hears no voices.  Perhaps it is his visitation that has caused the Typees’ muteness, or it is simply the way of the place.

Korykory is behind guiding him through the clusters of natives.

“Old fellow, there you are!”

Melvill, relieved, can hear the relief in Toby’s voice too.  Korykory helps him to a mat by his friend.

“I was afraid they’d decided you would be the appetizer and I the main course.”  Toby is holding a short wooden pipe.

Mehevi has sat facing them.  From a basket he produces a pipe similar to Toby’s.  It is already stuffed with tobacco.  Toby takes a small stick and puts one end into the bowl of his own pipe until the tip is glowing orange; then he uses it to set off Melvill’s pipe.

Melvill inhales deeply and lets the warm smoke out of his mouth and nose.  “A tad rough but a godsend nonetheless.”

Toby nods.  “Must be a local leaf.”

Melvill notices the murmur of conversation throughout the hut.  Apparently the silence was a reaction to his arrival.

“How’s the leg now, old fellow?”

“Perhaps a bit more limber but still a fount of pain.  My physician is lovely, but I’m afraid I may need less primitive doctoring.”

“I’m afraid we may yet become the guests of honor at a Typee feast.”

Mehevi, who has been smoking silently, smiles and says, “Typee,” his white teeth aglow in the shadowy Ti.

Melvill’s eyes have adjusted finally so he scans the interior.  There are dozens and dozens of Typees, young men and old, all sitting or reclining with their pipe; on woven mats that are either rolled into cushions or flat on the cool stone floor.  They are in groups of four to six or seven, carelessly arranged.  Ever since entering the Ti Melvill has been sensing dark circular objects hanging at regular intervals on the walls.  With his improved vision he looks up to discover the dark shapes are human heads.  The pipe nearly falls from his lips.  “Toby . . . on the walls.”

Toby glances up for an instant.  “Yes, quite a pleasant decorating touch isn’t it?”

The faces look to have the texture of smoked meat, desiccated and shrunk close to the bone.  The eyes have been replaced with something white and iridescent, chipped stone or seashell.  The heads glare wildly from their mounted positions.  Melvill thinks perhaps they retain the shadow of their horrorstruck expression at the instant of death.

Mehevi must notice Melvill staring and he gestures toward the heads and offers an explanation.  The only word that Melvill understands is “Happar,” the Typees’ neighboring enemies.

Melvill says to Toby, “Perhaps this Ti is one large hunting lodge and these heads the cherished trophies.”

“Yes, and a men’s club as well.”

They spend a peaceful hour in the Ti with their pipes and the indistinct native voices.  From time to time Melvill can imagine that the voices are mumbling English, the meanings just beyond his comprehension.  Also, the displayed heads start to become as familiar as sconces.  Even though there is no signal that Melvill can detect, all at once the Typees extinguish their pipes and begin to herd outdoors.  Melvill and Toby follow suit, Melvill with Korykory’s quick assistance.

The women and children have come to the grove and set up a midday meal.  Korykory takes Melvill and Toby to a spot where the old couple, Marheyo and Tinor, are waiting with the meal.  They sit on sheets of white tappa in the grass in the narrow shadow of the Ti.  The meal is the same as breakfast except for the substitution of coconut milk for the citrus juice.  Melvill is surprised at the number of Typees who are having their meal in the grove.  It is an aboriginal scene, unchanged in hundreds of years, perhaps thousands.  But their time is limited, speculates Melvill.  He thinks of the three French men-of-war anchored in Nukuheva Bay, and of how the occupation has already changed the coastal region of the island, and of how the French will not be satisfied with only the coast and will systematically work their way inland.  He thinks of how the Christian missionaries will follow the French like the scavenger sharks in the wake of the Acushnet.

“This certainly is superior to starvation,” says Toby after sucking poeepoee from his finger, “but I keep thinking about sinking my teeth into a thick beefsteak.”

“One day soon I’m certain—when we reach the Hawaiian Islands.”  Melvill hears the skepticism in his voice.

Melvill wants to stand when Fayaway approaches but his leg will not allow any sudden movement.  The beautiful girl speaks to Marheyo and Tinor then she says something to Melvill—he guesses about his leg.  Before he can find a way to respond she picks up a large bowl of boacho and offers it to him.  Melvill points to his smaller bowl which contains the fruity mush.  Fayaway insists that he take more.

Toby says, “I believe the doctor is prescribing a remedy, old fellow.”

Melvill pours the yellowish boacho into his bowl.  “Thank you.”

Fayaway continues kneeling at Marheyo’s side talking to the old man.  In profile, with her dark hair spilling over her shoulders, she appears totally nude.

Toby runs his finger along the rim of his bowl.  “Aside from the distinct possibility of ending up as sustenance, the Marquesas have their redeeming qualities.”

Melvill does not comment.

When the meal is finished Tinor and Fayaway load the empty bowls into the large basket, placing the folded tappa on top.  A majority of the men, including the decorated Mehevi, saunter toward the Ti.  Melvill, weary, mounts Korykory’s back thinking the Ti is their destination too; however Korykory begins following Marheyo, who is walking directly away from the massive hut.

“Where are we going?”  Melvill watches over his shoulder as Toby stands hesitant for a moment then shrugging turns toward the Ti.

Korykory must sense the meaning of Melvill’s question and offers a lengthy but fruitless Typee reply.  Not bridging the gap with the old man they follow, Korykory takes a path out of the ring of huts; and Melvill discovers that beyond the grove about a third of a mile are dozens of small flat-roofed structures.  Each one they pass has a totem of carved stone blocking its black opening.  Many of these small huts are in disrepair and collapsing in on themselves.  Several of the totems have fallen over.  Another footpath to the left and they come to a hut which is under construction.  Korykory unloads Melvill near a log on which he can rest then Korykory and Marheyo begin working on the bamboo-reed hut.  They work without speaking, each knowing his part in the process.  Korykory uses a sharp-edged stone to snap the bamboo at the proper length.  The reeds are slightly larger around than a man’s thumb.  Marheyo skillfully lashes the bamboo together with vines to extend the second wall.  The first wall stands erect supported by thick tree limbs; the wall being built is approximately a third of the first wall.  Each is about six feet high, estimates Melvill.  He is surprised that Korykory uses such a primitive method to size the bamboo because Melvill has noticed metal blades and tools among the Typees—evidence of some contact, if only indirectly, with sailors.

The spot where Melvill has been placed is shady and drowsiness soon begins to overtake him with the rise in his fever again.  He waits quietly hoping that Korykory will finish his part and return him to Marheyo’s hut, or at least the Ti.  But Marheyo and Korykory work without pause and there are so many dozen bamboo reeds to be sized.

Melvill hobbles a short distance to a grassy place near the log and lies down.  The grass feels cool and soft, and soon Melvill is asleep.  The snapping and lashing of the bamboo enters his sleepworld to become the sounds aboard the Acushnet:  the reeving of the sails, the banging of the tackles against the masts, the securing of supplies below deck.  And there is something missing . . .  someone missing.  Melvill watches the search boats circling astern, gray boats on a gray sea, and Melvill knows the truth.  He believes he knows.

When Melvill awakens Fayaway is sitting on the log watching Marheyo and Korykory work.  The change in light filtered through the leafy canopy—now more yellow than white—tells Melvill it is late afternoon.  Fayaway smiles down at Melvill then speaks to the silent workers.  She says the name “Hermes” and she uses the word “kiki,” which relates to food or eating, Melvill has learned.

Melvill tries to raise himself and finds that the pain in his leg is less acute but the stiffness is profound—truly like a piece of driftwood.  He cannot bend his knee at all, barely his ankle.  Fayaway, seeing his difficulty, calls to Korykory and the two of them help Meilvill to the log.  Melvill notices the differences in their grip on each bare arm:  Korykory’s hands are callused and powerful; Fayaway’s small and light, like a bird’s wings.

While Melvill and Fayaway sit she is explaining something about the structure being built.  Marheyo this, she says, and Marheyo that.  The second, or back, wall is erect and the third wall is a quarter finished.  Marheyo and Korykory are tidying up their materials, wrapping the bamboo into long palmetto leaves, balling the vines.  When they are finished, Korykory readies himself to carry Melvill, who feels a pang of guilt at not being able to walk.  After all, Korykory has been laboring all afternoon and now he must carry Melvill the great distance from the secluded flat-roofed huts, past the grove with the Ti, and back to the cluster of huts where Marheyo and Tinor live near the waterfall.  There is nothing to do about his guilt.  Marheyo and Fayaway walk in front, Korykory with Melvill behind.  Fayaway, though tall for a Typee female, comes only to Marheyo’s shoulder, and the old man is somewhat stooped.  Their bare feet leave no trace on the hard earth.

The grove where they lunched is quiet.  Melvill believes there must be dozens of men in the Ti smoking and socializing but he sees no one near its black entrance.  It is as if the entire grove is sleeping—even the huts and the wildlife—or holding its breath, suspending living for a time.  The quiet makes Melvill uneasy.  He wants to ask, “Where is everyone?” but anticipates no response.  Half dozing on Korykory’s back, Melvill recalls legends of magic spells putting entire villages to sleep, of evil palls cast upon castles.   Always it is an heroic act which lifts the spell.  He senses no heroism in himself nor in Toby.  Desperation, trepidation, primal fear—just beneath the surface.

As they approach Marheyo’s hut Melvill sees Tinor and other old women bent over a large piece of white cloth working it with some sort of hand tool, like a small rolling pin.  They are chattering but stop as soon as Marheyo’s group draws near.  Marheyo speaks briefly to his wife, or so their relationship seems to Melvill, before Korykory takes Melvill inside.  Fayaway continues past Marheyo’s, presumably to her family’s hut.

Korykory eases Melvill down then immediately goes to a corner of the hut and lies in a fetal position.  In seconds, while Melvill is still watching, Korykory is asleep.  At first, in the dim light, Melvill does not recognize the things stacked on his sleeping mat but touches them and realizes they are his clothes.  He is happy to get out of the makeshift toga and put on his familiar shirt and underbreeches and trousers.  They are freshly laundered and have a pleasant floral scent.  He leaves his shoes and stockings on the mat.

Melvill sits, thinking that is all he will do, but the drowsiness of fever quickly overcomes him and he lies down.  He recalls sleeping in a strange room with his older brother.  It is Christmastime and outdoors a thick blanket of snow covers the ground.  Melvill hears his father’s voice . . . downstairs, talking and laughing—storytelling.  Melvill reaches for his old patchwork quilt but it is not cold really.  His groping hand finds the white tappa and he cover himself.  His father’s story is a dissipating echo, like invisible dripping in a cave.  He tries in vain to revive the dream of New England, to resurrect the ghost of his father.  The darkness of the cave becomes real when Melvill awakens.  The hut is black.  He sits upright and looks at the opening.  It is a rectangle of lavender twilight.  Korykory is gone.  Melvill struggles up and goes to the opening.  No one is outside.  From Marheyo’s hut Melvill can see the grove with the Ti and between the blacktrunk trees is the orange glow of fire.  Supper time? he wonders.  Then why was I not called?  And where is Toby?

Because of his leg, the Ti seems a great distance but Melvill begins to make his way.  He is surprised that the ground is cool under his bare feet.  He expects it to feel like baked terracotta, only minutes from the kiln.  Walking is painful and he wishes he had a sturdy stick.  He can detect the smell of woodsmoke now and of roasting meat.  He thinks of Toby, whom he has not seen for hours.  Queasiness slows his already slow pace.  The light from the fire in the grove reminds him of the bellies of the cookstoves on the Acushnet, day and night boiling down the blubber when a kill has been made.  The sickening smell of the melting fat, which permeated every space on the ship, comes to him again, adding to his nausea.

The light of the fires—the one in the grove and the recollected fire from the ship—nearly blinds him.  Melvill stops, as if the twin fires have consumed his energy, his will.  It is all he can do to keep from falling to the ground.

The Typees who emerge from the grove are like two shadow-warriors:  black shapes against the fireglow.  Melvill wants to run but cannot.  He collapses when the dark figures reach him.  Each taking an arm and a leg they carry him to the grove.  Melvill, sick with fear, tries to shout out—for Toby, Korykory, Fayaway—but he has no voice.  In the grove he sees that it is not one great fire but many fires.  Their heat, combined with the sultry tropical heat, is intense.  The warriors, who at least have distinct features in the firelight, carry him to one of the smaller ground-level huts adjacent to the Ti.

“Old fellow!”  Toby rushes over.  “I had really given you up.”  He helps Melvill to sit upright.  They are alone in the small dark hut.

“What’s happening?”  Melvill’s voice is a hoarse whisper.

“I can’t say for certain.  They’ve been dancing about these fires for some time—rather ceremoniously.”

Melvill leans over to see out.  “Is the ceremony for us, do you think?”

Toby rearranges himself so they are on either side of the hut’s opening.  “I can’t say; but it seems likely.”

“Why not get on with in then?”

“It is their religion, I suppose.  You know that religious rites are not known for their swiftness.”

“Toby, you must escape.  I’m in no condition to flee, but you. . . .”

“My chances out there are no better, especially in the dark.  There are hundreds of them.  Thousands maybe.  The whole damned cannibal nation has turned out for the event.”

They sit in silence for a time.  Outside the fires crackle and the Typees dance and chant.  Melvill wonders about the decisions they have made, jumping ship and setting out for the wild country with no provisions and no weapons—totally at the mercy of who or what would find them.  The whole episode makes no sense.  There is no logic to any of their moves.  Melvill, the gifted student, the debate society president, is awed by the rashness of his actions.  He and Toby were doomed the instant they left Nukuheva Bay—running in that torrential downpour like freed schoolboys.

“I’m sorry it has come to this,” says Melvill.

“It’s not your fault, old fellow.  We made the plans together.  I knew what the possibilities were.”  Toby glances outside.  “They’re coming.”

Their hands clasp on the sandy floor of the hut.

Melvill recognizes one of the trio approaching as Korykory.  Another is Mehevi, the richly tattooed chieftain.  The third Typee, who stays close to Mehevi’s side, Melvill does not know.  All three, backlit, appear to wear plumes of fire for headdress.

Korykory kneels at the hut’s opening.  He holds a flat piece of wood.  He says something “kiki.”

“They bring food,” repeats Melvill.

On the wood are several strips of smoking meat.

“Yes,” says Toby, releasing Melvill’s hand, “but my god, what kind of meat?”

“Kiki,” insists Korykory thrusting the strips toward Melvill.

Melvill’s stomach is turning, partly from the fear that has been consuming him and partly from the idea of this cannibal offering.  He recalls the severed heads in the Ti.  “No kiki,” he says weakly, shaking his head.

Korykory seems confused, almost embarrassed.  He takes a pieces of the meat and bites it himself.  “Puarkee.”  He grins and chews the meat; juice trickles down his chin.  “Puarkee.”  He holds the remainder of the meat to Melvill’s lips.

Melvill, his head pounding from the tension and the fever, hesitates then opens his mouth slightly.  Korykory pushes the meat past Melvill’s parted lips.  He fights the urge to gag as he begins to chew.  The rich flavor floods his tongue and it is familiar.  He swallows some of the meat.  “Pork.  The natives are roasting some of those wild boars.  It’s delicious.”

Korykory, visibly happy, turns to Toby, who takes a strip of meat.  He cautiously puts it in his mouth.  “You’re right—damned succulent too.”

They come from the hut and sit near one of the fires.  The Typees dance and chant and tell their incomprehensible warrior stories.  The halfmoon is high when the feast finally ends.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Looking back, and a bit of True Grit

Posted in December 2010 by Ted Morrissey on December 31, 2010

On the one hand, I claim not to put a lot of stock in the significance of certain dates for their own sake, but the last day of the calendar year seems to encourage reflection. From a writing standpoint in particular, it’s definitely been a good one. I placed the odd and off-color story “Unnatural Deeds” with Leaf Garden, issue #8. Frankly, it took several months to find a publisher for that one, but I’m proud of it in the sense, especially, that the story is a testament to honesty — life as it really is, and not a sanitized version of it. It raised a few eyebrows, that I know of. I also placed the story “Walkin’ the Dog” in the debut issue of Spilling Ink Review. In that story I’d experimented with narrative that rests more heavily than usual (for me) on repetition of specific images, especially the color orange. It hasn’t come out yet, but Pisgah Review took my story “The Composure of Death”; it should be out this winter or spring. I realize now all three stories have in common that I borrowed their titles from other literary sources: Macbeth (5.1), “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles”; the title of Walter Mosley’s conceptual novel Walkin’ the Dog; and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “[T]he corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death.”

The biggest stroke of luck of course was finding a publisher, finally, for my novel Men of Winter, which the new small press Punkin House picked up in the spring and released at the end of November. Thus 2011 will be in large part about promoting the novel. I also hope to release Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella and story collection, tentatively taken by Punkin House. The first chapter of Weeping, titled “Melvill in the Marquesas,” was published in September in The Final Draft. (I meant to provide a link to the story, which was published online, but the link has become inactive again — a bit disconcerting, as I’ve been hoping it would be floating around in the ether promoting in its way the coming novella release.) I thought I would have difficulty placing the novella excerpt — it is a bit unusual, in essence a fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s experience among cannibals in 1842, during the whaling adventure that led to his eventually writing Moby Dick — but The Final Draft picked it up pretty quickly, and even though I withdrew it promptly from other journals’ consideration, I received three other offers of publication, and two rejections with long notes of praise (highly unusual, from my experience). So maybe the novella itself will generate some reading interest.

I was also invited to contribute to Glimmer Train Press’ Writers Ask series, a well-respected how-to publication, and thus my piece “Researching the Rhythms of Voice” will appear this winter or spring. I wrote about the process I’ve gone through to write my current project, whose working title is the Authoress, as its first-person protagonist is modeled after the nineteenth-century American writer Washington Irving. In particular I’ve been reading an obscure collection of Irving’s letters in order to get the feel of his more informal prose style. I’ve written about 340 manuscript pages of the Authoress, and hope to finish within a year or so. One other writing development was my establishing a new blog via my publisher, Punkin House. I decided what the world may need is a blog devoted to helping new(er) writers find outlets for their work, thus Pathfinding.

The Authoress has taken up all my writing energy, so I haven’t written any shorter pieces, nor any scholarly papers — both of which I miss, but it’s important to devote the necessary time and mental processing to the new novel. I’m not short on ideas: I have several writing projects, both small and large, creative and scholarly, in mind.

Finally, I don’t normally write about cinema, especially contemporary American cinema, but the other day I saw the Coen Brothers’ newest offering, True Grit, and I found it quite mesmerizing and wonderful. The acting is superb (and why wouldn’t it be, given the cast?), but beyond that the cinematic style is quite engaging, epic and even biblical in its scope. I know there have been some naysayers who don’t like the idea of remaking the 1969 John Wayne classic, directed by Henry Hathaway — and I love that True Grit, too — but the Coen Brothers have remained truer, apparently, to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, and have given us a film that is darker and, well, grittier, than the original film, great as it is.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and am enjoying it very much. Winter break is nearly over, and it will be back to the three-job grind, but I’ve managed to make a lot of progress on the Authoress.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter