Posts Tagged ‘Donald Justice’

Poems from my co-pilot

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
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rifenburgh2I met poet Daniel Rifenburgh ohhhhh… a dozen-or-so years ago.  We’ve stayed in touch since.  We had an unforgettable June evening together at the West Chester Poetry Conference.  We were in a rented car crammed with people, en route from the university to the home of Michael Peich, conference’s co-founder (with Dana Gioia).  As I recall, David Slavitt was piled into the car, too.  Can’t remember who else … plenty of people pushed into a small vehicle.

Dan was driving – as I recall he was a taxi-driver at that time, so he was pro.  Later, he taught at the University of Houston.  Now he drives an 18-wheeler flatbed rig, hauling steel out of the Port of Houston.  On that particular night, however, he had the misfortune to appoint me as his co-pilot and hand me the maps.  We quickly became confused and lost in the suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood, with its winding, pointless streets, but we were having fun, anyway.  We may have been the only ones in the car who were.  We found the party eventually, and stayed in touch over the years, respectfully addressing each other by title, always – “co-pilot.”

So I was pleased to receive in the mail his newest volume of poems, Isthmus (it was signed – what else? – “To my co-pilot, Cynthia, with admiration and affection”).  I was also pleased to hear that we have a mutual friend, Anne Stevenson.  Here’s what she wrote about his poems in London Magazine, after recounting a career that included serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, and working his way through Latin America as a reporter: “Rifenburgh is enjoyable because he ranges at large over many subjects, testing, exploring, reporting, celebrating; he has many moods … Yet, for all his ironic witticisms, Rifenburgh is, au fond, a profoundly spiritual poet, committed, like Hecht and Wilbur, to declaring his seriousness.”

Antonov An-2

A better way to get around Pennsylvania?

Other supporters include Richard Wilbur, who says his poems “can also stun the reader with a brilliant, slow-fuse image. What governs the movement of the poems is a genius for the speaking voice.”  Isthmus is dedicated to Donald Justice, who said Dan’s poems “are terrific: so fluent, so smart, and brimming with charm.”  Both Justice and Anthony Hecht figure in the poems, as dedicatees or the source of subject matter or epigrams – and Adam Zagajewski, who taught with Dan in Houston, makes a welcome guest appearance, too.  Hecht wrote, characteristically, “These poems are startling in their vividness, skill, their originality and solidity. I find that lines and images resonate long after they have served the purposes of their local contents.”

Dan said I could reprint a poem – but which?  Sometimes the first choices are best.  When I opened the book, my eyes fell on this one, and I liked it.  It grabs me still, though I haven’t read them all, so I can’t claim it’s my favorite yet.

 

The Fragments of Heraclitus

The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.
.                            The Fragments

The fragments of Heraclitus,
Compact, trenchant, inscrutable,

Are lovely in their resistance
To analysis. Therefore, from sympathy,

And, being immortal,
They sometimes assume human forms

To attend unnoticed the burials of critics.
They hold by their brims dark fedoras and,

Standing aloof, stolid, anonymous,
Listen respectfully to brief eulogies

While the great world sifts noiselessly
Down through time’s latticework

And the bow named life,
Accomplishing its work, later

Sends them strolling like slow arrows
Away from these shaded gravesites,

Pacing back cleansed
Into birdsong and light.

“And finally time runs out”: Evan Connell dies at 88

Sunday, January 13th, 2013
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“I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next.”

Evan Connell has died, “of old age,” according to a relative.  He was 88 at the time of his death last week in  Santa Fe.

I didn’t know Evan Connell’s work, except from Ken Fields, who recently mentioned Mrs. Bridge as a masterpiece.  Apparently Wallace Stegner thought so, too.  He called it “a hell of a portrait…She’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.”

Connell, the author of 18 books, was a student of Stegner’s during his time at Stanford in the 1940s.  And Stegner was his first publisher:  Stanford Short Stories: Nineteen Forty-Nine (Stanford University Press), edited by Stegner from submissions by Stanford students, contains the first book appearance of a work by Connell.

Connell was in the first class of Stegner Fellows at Stanford, 1947-48, in the illustrious company of Donald Davie and Donald Justice.

The road to Stanford was not an easy one.  Connell was the son and grandson of physicians, and his father did not take easily to the idea that his only son would not follow in his footsteps. According to the Los Angeles Times:

He was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which he attended from 1941 to 1943, but ultimately decided against following in his elders’ footsteps. This did not please his father, whom Connell described as “a rather severe man.”

“He was concerned that I would never be able to make a living at this kind of thing,” Connell, in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, said of writing. “It was a justifiable concern, I think. I grew up in a home where there was no music, no interest in any of the arts.”

He dropped out of Dartmouth and joined the Navy, training as an aviator at a base near Albuquerque, where he fell in love with the vastness of the West. After completing his military service, he studied painting on the GI Bill and traveled, living in France during the 1950s and writing for the Paris Review.

Usually, Connell’s first published work is credited as the critically acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957). His first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), according to the Man Booker Prize website, “dissects the life of a conventional upper-middle-class Kansas City matron who lacks a sense of purpose and conforms blindly to what is expected of her.”  Connell published Mr. Bridge a decade later, retelling the same story from the husband’s p.o.v.

According to the Los Angeles Times obituary:

He initially wrote Mrs. Bridge rather conventionally, with about 15 chapters, but it was rejected by numerous publishers in part because it lacked a climax. That was his intention, Connell said, because “our lives do not reach a dramatic climax in the way that books usually do. Most of us just go on day to day through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out.”

He restructured the novel as a series of 117 vignettes, which paint a devastating portrait of a woman puzzled by the emptiness of the small world she inhabits. The novel was “one of the very few written since World War II that clearly deserves to be called, as it has been, a masterpiece,” William H. Nolte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Connell followed the same theme and structure a decade later in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge. Some critics found it darker and more satirical than the first novel because the main character, Mrs. Bridge’s joyless lawyer husband, was far less likable than his wife.

Both novels became the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with the husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Success didn’t spoil him.  Again according to the L.A. Times: “Despite the success of the Bridge novels, Connell held a number of odd jobs to get by. He delivered mail, read gas meters and was a counselor at an unemployment office. In his exceedingly dark 1966 novel The Diary of a Rapist, the main character is working in an unemployment office when he goes crazy.”

Connell’s bestselling 1984 biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star also earned praise and became a 1991 mini-series.  Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, said the book was “one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West” and particularly noteworthy for its portrayals of the Native Americans.  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times also called it a masterpiece with a “lasting visceral resonance.”

Connell told the New York Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

Connell won the $100,000 Lannan Literary Award in 2000 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. He was nominated for a Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009.  But I can find nothing else online about his time at Stanford.

Postscript on 1/16:  D.G. Myers has an excellent piece on Evan Connell’s oeuvre over at The Commonplace Blog.  “Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention…”  Check it out here.