Commentaries - May 2009

On an otherwise sad day (yesterday), Miriam explores with the garden-expert calico.

By the time Michael Cunningham showed up to talk with my students they were already in love with him — with the prose of The Hours (but, to be sure, we’d read each of C’s novels). But there he was in person: kind as could be, ready to listen to these young people, and he had on a great pair of boots, with a heel and a seriously shitkicking pointed toe. The kids were knocked out. That was 2002 and the scene of Michael’s entrance into the room of expectant, bright but ready-to-be-wowed eighteen–twenty-two year olds is what I remember. Now I’ve gone back to listen to his reading (he read from The Hours) and the interview/conversation I conducted the next day, and realize what good content there was too. Dan Fishback, now a pretty successful political comic writer/performer in New York, gave the introduction — and we’ve preserved the text of it. It begins:

I signed up for this class in a kind of prideless, bumbling squirt — I emailed Al, “Cunningham is my personal Jesus, you have to let me in, you have to, you have to.” But then I calmed down, because I realized I’d be taking these books into the realm of other people — and new perspectives seemed dangerous somehow. Just before I came to college, I read A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and The Hours; and they were like … vaccines.

The chamber group pictured here a decade ago decided to name itself “The Eighth Blackbird,” having rejected several other poetic references such as “Red Wheelbarrow.” There are thirteen blackbirds, of course. So why the eighth? Is it the music’s unavoidable, inexorable meter? Is it the focused circular knowing of the musician in the midst of his or her playing? Well, anyway:

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

It’s good to know that in the mid-90s someone at Oberlin College was apparently teaching Wallace Stevens.

Aw, but enough lucidity. For my part, I want to listen to the music of a group named “First Blackbird,” making sounds based on this:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

And on some days, “Tenth Blackbird” would do very aptly:

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

Russell Banks visited for two days in 2004. He was introduced by Jamie-Lee Josselyn, fellow northern New Englander. We’ve made Banks’ reading (from the opening of the novel The Darling, then not yet published) and the interview I conducted the next morning available as downloadable audio recordings. They are linked here along with photos and an essay about the Banks visit written by Megan Scanlon.

In the past four months Matthew Abess, Cecilia Corrigan, Ned Eisenberg, Kim Eisler, Trisha Low, and Kaegan Sparks explored the topography of testimony to life in extremis (in particular, the Holocaust). This follows, for Matthew anyway, from my course on the problems of representing the Holocaust, where the issue is most discernible in our discussions of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the poems of Paul Celan, the study of survivors made by Terrence Des Pres, and the videotaped survivor testimonies housed at Yale University. That’s the intellectual geneology or paths that converged, roughly speaking, and this group, led by Matt, journeyed along it quite a bit further. Recently they made a presentation at the Writers House; now we have both audio and video recordings of the event available.