Wednesday, April 16, 2014

William Faulkner’s “Soldier’s Pay”

William Faulkner wrote Soldier’s Pay, his first novel, during the first six months of 1925. He was living in New Orleans, in a ground-floor apartment on Orleans Alley in the French Quarter. The house had been built in 1840 on what had been part of the Spanish colonial prison, located at the rear of the administration building known (then and now) as the Cabildo.

Today, Orleans Alley is called Pirate’s Alley, in the very heart of the French Quarter. Faulkner’s ground-floor apartment is now occupied by Faulkner House Books. A plaque on the wall outside notes that this is the place where he wrote his first novel. The story is that Faulkner, who had considered himself a poet, wrote the novel at the urging of novelist Sherwood Anderson.

Soldier’s Pay is the story of Donald Mahon, an American who became a captain in the British Royal Air Force in World War I. He had supposedly been killed when his plane was shot down; but he is on his way home, severely injured, his face scarred, and not much of his mind left. He has a relatively small part in the story, but there is no question he is the character around which the entire story revolves.

Donald is engaged to Cecily Saunders, a hometown girl who is known as something of a flirt. She is shallow, somewhat vain, and in love with another man. Donald doesn’t recognize or his father, an Episcopal priest. Nor does he recognize Emmy, the family’s servant.

The wounded soldier is accompanied home by a fellow veteran, Joe Gilligan, and a woman they meet on the train, Margaret Powers. And there is Januarius Jones, whom Donald’s father meets early in the story and becomes in a way the narrative’s anti-hero, if not the villain. It says something of Faulkner’s writing ability that Joe and Margaret move in with the family, Joe to dress and care for him, and Margaret is some of a protective role, and it doesn’t seem odd.

As these characters respond and react to each other and what is clearly Donald’s declining health, secrets begin to play themselves out. Even Donald had at least one secret of which he and the other characters are unaware, and that is how he got his terrible injuries. But the secrets are of lesser importance; what is happening here is a theme that Faulkner will return to again and again in later novels, and that is the impact of modernization on family, relationships, love, and the social structure.

In Soldier’s Pay, modernization takes on the guise of war and its aftermath. It is not so much deadly as deadening, eroding what have long been the foundations of social and family life. Donald’s father seems to move through the story in something of a trance, his faith not rejected but forgotten and almost irrelevant. Joe Gilligan and Emmy are the characters who represent faith at work, as Joe ministers to Donald’s basic needs and Emmy feeds him. Margaret Powers is the hard, perhaps hardened, realist in the story, her own husband killed in the war and Donald offering a kind of atonement.

What Faulkner will later produce in a series of remarkable novels is foreshadowed here – the tantalizing secrets that shape so much of what the reader can see but not all at once, the complexities of the story, and even some of the circularity of the narrative. Soldier’s Pay may not be quite in the same league as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, but in many ways it is the father to those children, and the resemblance is there to see. 

Image by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poets and Poems: Charles Wright’s “Caribou”

I started reading Charles Wright’s new collection of poem, Caribou, and immediately was reminded of something that happened 20 years ago.

I was on the board of the World Bird Sanctuary, an organization on the preservation of raptors (think birds like hawks, falcons, great horned owls, and eagles). We met monthly at different locations. One month we met at the ranger’s station at Lone Elk County Park in far western St. Louis County.

Our meeting began at 4 p.m. and spilled over into the evening hours. I had to leave at 7:30, and as I stepped outside to go to the parking lot. I instantly realized two things: it was pitch black, with no outside light; and I was in the middle of something large and alive.

I froze in place, not knowing what to do, until the ranger’s car appeared on the road and I could see by his headlights. I was in the middle of the elk herd, which liked to come down to the station at night to sleep. Some were already asleep; others were standing on the sidewalk, blocking the way to my car. The park, by the way, was misnamed. There was no lone elk; there was actually a herd of about 100 elk.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Humanity of Listening to Light

This article was originally published at The Master’s Artist.

In 2003, Cyra Dumitru published a volume of poetry entitled Listening to Light: Voice Poems. The poems are divided into three sections: the first in about Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel; the second is about the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris; and the third is about the characters of the gospel story – Mary, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Peter, Judas and Joseph, among others.

While all of the poems are about “myths” (in the sense of archetypal stories), they have one thing in common – Dumitru focuses our attention on the flesh-and-blood people who are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus and Judas. (I’m reminded of Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” books – Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana.)

She does what can be done well with poetry – forcing us to consider Biblical characters in three dimensions, as individuals with recognizable hopes, dreams, problems and challenges. We see more humanity here than we’re used to reading. And the effect is immediate – we understand these characters as recognizable, and we experience Mary’s visit by the angel and Judas and his betrayal as events happening just as if we ourselves were the characters involved. Consider the dilemma Mary’s mother faces with her daughter:

Mary’s Mother

What does a mother do with such a daughter?
She’s not interested in marriage, having children.
Says she’s too busy listening to God.

I’ve watched Mary sit with her back against a fig tree,
eyes shining, fixed on somewhere I can’t see.
For hours she sits heedless to flies, dust, heavy sun.

Then suddenly she stands, shakes herself
breathes deeply and opens
her arms to the fading light.

When she embraces me
sparks flow from her fingers
down my arms and back.

I am afraid for Mary.
She speaks f hearing a voice deep within
of seeing angels at the well.

I tremble because I believe her
but I am only a poor woman
who sees the way men look at her.

Judas and his betrayal become familiar not because the story is familiar but because we can see ourselves in his place: “Before his greatness my spirit shrinks. / The others speak of God’s voice enlarging them. / Inside me – silence. / His radiance – shadow…”

My favorite poem in the collection is “Joseph Recalls.” Joseph is one the pivotal characters in the story of the birth of Jesus, and yet we know so little about him. Dumitru positions him as remembering Jesus – we don’t know whether it’s before or after the crucifixion (presumably before) but it is clearly a time when Joseph knows he is unlikely to see Jesus again. He recalls what happened the day Jesus laid down his hammer and told Joseph “It is time now / for me to build / a house within / for God.” Joseph knows it is true as soon as Jesus utters the words and understands the sacrifice that is to come. And then Joseph says:

I have always
felt his light
see it streaking

the grain
of this table
he made as a boy.

It is all
I have
left of him.

One feels the pain of a father who has physically lost a son, a son he raised and trained, a son he knew was destined for other things.

It is this poignancy that tears at our hearts, that helps us understand that these Bible characters are people like ourselves. Poetry can help do that.

Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with Permission.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It was a yellow day

It was a yellow day,
the light slanted
with its yellow scent.
She followed him as
he walked through
dirty streets, asking
him to come home,
no more drugs
no more drugs
to the baby they created,
to the baby she was holding.
no more drugs
no more drugs
A turn; his angry eye
silenced her, just as the bullets
tore through their bodies.

Last Sunday, we heard a sermon by the director of a street outreach ministry in Honduras. This poem, and the one yesterday (The photograph) are based on a true story. If you’d like to learn more, please visit The Micah Project.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The photograph

It is the only photograph
he has of her, his mother,
and not a real photograph but
instead a poor reproduction
printed in a cheap newspaper
the day after she died
(“unidentified woman found
shot to death”) in a bullet
storm that passes for gang
justice. He looks at the body
in the photograph, bullet-spackled,
the photograph folded and creased,
fading, tucked within small plastic.
He can’t remember her voice but
he can remember the sound
of the bullets.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, April 11, 2014

I Almost Didn’t Read Faulkner

My introduction to the writing of William Faulkner was indirect. It began in college and almost didn’t survive college.

Way back when, sophomores at LSU were required to take two semesters of English – American or English. The vast majority took English 55 and 56, American literature. English majors were required to take English 51 and 52, English literature, instead. I wasn’t an English major, but I opted for 51 and 52 (likely influenced by what I learned with my high school English teachers). We had small, rather serious classes, compared to the auditoriums overflowing with students taking 55 and 56.

At some point, early in my sophomore year, I became the unofficial English tutor for my fraternity. That meant helping pledges (and actives) prepare for tests, helping explain assignments, and reading papers.

Every sophomore at LSU who took English 56 had to write a paper on “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. At the fraternity, that meant anywhere from 30 to 40 papers.

I came to hate that story. I came to hate reading about it, and reading a lot of really bad papers about it. One of the worst experiences I had was to see yet another fraternity member standing at the door of my room, paper in hand, smiling hopefully.

I didn’t look at anything with Faulkner’s name on it for more than a decade after college.

In 1983, I enrolled in a master’s program at Washington University in St. Louis, managing to balance one course per semester with work and family. Early on, I took a course called “the Nature of Story.” The required reading list included Faulkner.

I initially clutched, still haunted by reading those papers. Fortunately, the work wasn’t “Barn Burning.” It was The Sound and the Fury. I decided to plow through it, expecting to be gritting my teeth.

It was difficult, confusing, and a work that had to be read slowly and carefully. We had exactly one week to read it, and I think I used the entire week.

I loved it.

“Barn Burning” burnout was over.

I began to read other works by Faulkner. I took about master’s course on the Latin American novel, and discovered the authors that Faulkner had had a powerful influence on – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes (Faulkner is the patron saint of “magic realism”).

I read almost everything written by those authors, and continued to read Faulkner. Last month, I was in New Orleans, and visited the Faulkner Book House in the French Quarter, the building where Faulkner lived for six months in 1925. And there I learned that before he wrote novels, Faulkner considered himself primarily a poet, and had actually published a book of poetry shortly before he moved to New Orleans.

I just finished reading the one novel of his that I had never read before, Soldier’s Pay, his first novel and the one he wrote during those six months in New Orleans. More on that next week, but I can say that it is both a first novel and a definite foreshadowing of what was to come with the novels that transformed American (and world) literature.

This week, I wrote about the Faulkner Book House for Tweetspeak Poetry. Go take a look. If you leave a comment, your name is in the hat for a giveaway of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches. 

And, no, the sketches do not include “Barn Burning.” If you want to read it, and I still don’t, you can find it here. (Or you can get hold of the movie “The Long Hot Summer” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; “Barn Burning” is condensed into one mercifully short scene.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Not your offerings

It is not your offerings
I want; not your wealth
or time; not your professions
or songs; none of these
do I want, for all fall
short of the glory. I do not
want you to do justice,
or to love mercy or to walk

I want you to be justice,
I want you to be mercy.
I want you to be the humble walk.
I want you to be.
I want you.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.