The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

March 17, 2015

And all of a sudden, Mississippi happens

I traveled North in ice a week ago yesterday.  I came back to green hills, birds in trees, daffodils, new blossoms.  It’s not too hot.  It’s not too cold.  The air is not infested with mosquitoes, not yet at least.  It smells vaguely of chamomile and vanilla.

Birds all sing as if they knew.

Birds all sing as if they knew.

Spring has sprung, momma.  Spring has sprung.  The campus of Ole Miss is gently warm.  Students have exchanged parkas for shorts.  Walking around is a stroll, not a dash to avoid frigid pellets.

For those who haven’t already done so, it’s a good time to fall in love.

As Tennessee Williams more or less remarked, young people love as if they were inventing love.  The students here, all toned, fresh-faced, and tentatively swaggering, hair-flipping, giggling, are out in due season like the blossoms.  They are all so very pretty.  Even the nervous ones are pretty.

The Greeks would have told you that Persephone had emerged from the depths of Hades once more.  The country singers tell you that a girl in tight jeans is swinging her hips as she walks slowly by their truck, looking back with a longing gaze.  I tell you something in the middle of these two declarations of what is going on here.

Here is a poem from my forthcoming collection, out this April — The White Trash Pantheon — about this time of life and time of year.  It originally appeared in Connecticut Review.

PERSEPHONE’S CONFESSION

Momma, I lied to you.

I wasn’t kidnapped.  He was driving around town

For weeks in his silver flat-bed with his buddy Chiron

And that old, ugly hunting dog with the funny name.

He was giving me what you call the evil eye – but it’s not evil, Momma!

It’s just got that new math in it –

Me minus you equals negative me, baby,

You minus clothes equals me on my knees, sugar,

Me plus you equals you plus me equals me plus you plus me plus you –

And then one day, Chiron and his dog were gone, and he opened

The door.  I hopped in.

One true thing I told you – the Earth split open, and he floored it.

Momma, I know it was wrong, but you wouldn’t understand –

He’s a mountain man, and winter is friendly to him.  I come and go

As I please.  The thing about the pomegranate seeds, I made it up.

I get plenty to eat when I’m there –  Can he ever cook!

I help him at his cat fish fry shack – you know the saying:

Out of the frying pan into the – but I don’t mind.  I like it.

The oil spatters, and my arms burn a little, and I shiver.

He feeds me his funnel cake, which is thick and buttery.

His heavy fingers on me, with their rough skin – why do

You think the new buds are so pink and perky this year?

Why do you think the shallow lake is writhing with

New schools of golden guppies? Spring has sprung, Momma.

Momma, the netherworld, it’s only that way because

He doesn’t know divinity – that’s why the walls are bare.

He thinks it’s all a plot to confuse the game season tourists,

All a myth, especially what they say about him.  He

Growls at me, “Try me, baby!  I like religious arguments!

I believe in math and science.  I believe in my arms for

Heavy lifting, honey.”  Then he just grabs me, and

The talking stops.  What’s the point of blah-blah with

Catfish sizzling and the sailor’s salt-mouth suddenly

stopping its cursing to nibble instead?  I don’t even

Mind washing the grease off everything afterwards.

My hands are always busy, and then he looks at me

With the new math eyes – you bent over the sink times

Three equals me over you over and over again, baby,

Me over you equals never times infinity, beautiful  –

Momma, he wants to meet you.  He wants to come over

After he closes his kitchen after dinner.  Oh, please!

Maybe you can convince him about the God thing.

Momma, I’m sorry I lied.  It’s just that you think

Spring is all lilies, but it’s really about the mating.

________

This is why Mississippi is so lovely this time of year.  Love is being reinvented, often transgressively.

The air is filling with bird cries.  The warm air has brought out the frogs.  The South awakes from her long slumber and shakes her long hair.  She is looking back at me as I drive by like she wants a ride in my vehicle down some back road.  I am opening the door like a singer at the Opry, just for her.

August 13, 2010

Leaping into Faulkner’s Lap

the legend at work

Here’s a bit of practical advice:  Don’t enter the mausoleum, however ornate and lovely it looks on the outside, until you’re good and dead.

When I was first learning to be a writer, Allen Gurganus warned me not to be overawed by “literature.”  If writers spend too much time being intimidated by literary greatness, he said, we would  never achieve greatness of our own.  Our job was to go to the keyboard every day and create something new, polish it, make it good on its  own terms , but we were never to assume the pressure of immortality mid-opus.  Our immortality as writers was only our problem in as much as we were to slug it out  every day.

However much I try to obey this commandment, it is tempting in a place like where I am now — Oxford, Mississippi — to be seduced by the quest for immortality.  Oxford is one of the loveliest Southern towns — a venerable square, many historic churches, quaint gift shops, good restaurants — and many, many shrines to  the great William Faulkner, who lived here for most of his life and set many of his works in this area.

There is a statue of William Faulkner near city hall and the epicenter of culture here — Square Books, a fantastic independent bookseller with a large Faulkner section and tote bags and coffee mugs with Faulkner quotes on them.

The giant and lovely University of Mississippi is possibly more focused on football than Faulkner (especially in the administration, which surely  operates with another “F-word” in mind — “fundraising.”), but in the department in which I am working and getting my PhD, the English department, Faulkner is the raison d’etre. Many professors from Europe with an inordinate love of Faulkner congregate here to be experts in him and in his dense prose.

It is hard not to think of him constantly.  The college library has a  large-letter quote from him on the wall.  Faulkner is dead, but his ghost walks the halls.  People in the English department have  a ritual of drinking at Faulkner’s grave.  I have yet to do this, but as  I  type this, I am looking at a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon already set apart for this inevitable occasion.

However, my writing is not Faulknerian.  I am not destined to be Faulkner, but myself.  No one has built me  a statue.  No one  drinks at my grave. This feels like failure around here.

Enter my step-daughter, Charlotte, an irrepressible fifteen year-old  with that delicious freshness that all young people have.  Tennessee Williams remarked once that young  people love as if they had invented love.  A truer observation would be that young people invent love  and every other human experience with every generation.  Here is a photo of Charlotte taken at a store where they sell bins:

my wonderful, bright, funny step-daughter

Charlotte has sometimes gotten into trouble with older people who feel she has no respect for boundaries and their own sacred persons.  She is not  overawed by any adult — neither teacher, nor parent, nor store manager holds any particular fear for  her.  Sometimes, this gets her sent to the principle’s office or grounded.

To Charlotte, William Faulkner is just some  guy.

When she saw the statue of Faulkner, cast in bronze seated on a bench,  holding his pipe and wearing his fedora, she leapt onto the statue’s lap and put her arms around it.

I have not put up a photo of this event on this blog because I think a person in Oxford might get a ticket for Faulkner lap-leaping.  I’m not sure.

Oh — what the heck — here she is!

a dynamic relationship with literature --no pretenses

I say Charlotte has it right.  Faulkner is just some guy.  So is Shakespeare.  so is her dad.

Veneration is fine for the dead, but for the living, it’s premature.  Literature is just some guys and gals writing some stuff and editing it so it gets really good.

I  took Charlotte around campus and helped her to imagine a more serious future — SATs, college interviews, the five-paragraph essay.  I bought her literature her  woefully inadequate high  school English and History departments don’t bother teaching.  I  showed her some foreign movies to help her imagine a world bigger than her small town shows her.

She is currently reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and now loves the movie Amelie.  The universe is expanding, and there are serious parts of it, but there is no reason not to be so scared of  any of it that we miss the fun of it.  This is, in a nutshell, Charlotte’s experience right  now.

Leaping into Faulkner’s lap is a much better impulse, I find, than making him into the patron saint of Southern writers.  If he  is all that good (and he is), the proper impulse is to incorporate him currently into the life of our minds, to approach him with whimsy as well  as  analysis, to make him useful to us, not a heavy bronze backpack for us to climb with uphill.

Writing is the problem of people living today.  Literature is  the problem of  the next generation after my death.  I’m a writer.  I just work here.

One day, when she is  older,  Charlotte will leap less onto the laps of legends.  That will be a sad day for literature.

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