For a short time the summer before my year senior year in college, I had nowhere to go but Houston. So I moved back in with my mother. The last place I wanted to be was in my old neighborhood of Meyerland even for a few weeks. I had been living in Boston, and I was different now. To return home seemed like a defeat.
I had always seen Meyerland as an idyllic area of southwest Houston with its cozy, mid-century Tudor and colonial ranch houses. In August the wide roads and trim lawns had settled low against a tall sky. Now, after living in Boston, I couldn’t see it at all anymore. Driving down Chimney Rock with the bulbous trees heavy under the long, humid days was like a familiar dream. I did it without looking, without interest. I could only remember my childhood there but not see who I was, even in so familiar a place.
I stayed alone most days in the air-conditioned house and buried my head in books. One was John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. His descriptions of Texas seemed right to me:
I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.
Houston was a segregated city, like most of Texas as a whole. Some of it by law, but most by tradition or fear. A lot of that was concealed from me as a child, but it wasn’t like I didn’t notice. For sure I was deeply in love with the city’s eccentricities: oversized Lone Star flags that flew high above gas stations and car dealerships, the spaghetti bowl freeways and and pickup trucks, long sky-scapes and fat belt buckles. The all y’all’s, the honeys, and sweetie pies—I adored, took to heart. And the very best were the beautiful cowboy boots, central to a Texan identity. And everyone talking like they were just seconds away from doing a little cattle roping, even if most of the friends I knew from the predominantly Jewish section of Meyerland would go onto become ear, nose, and throat doctors, CPAs, money managers, insurance executives.
I’d wanted to take my first poetry workshop my senior year of college but hesitated when I found out I would need to submit poems to get in. Problem was, I hadn’t written any. I was only at that time still just imagining writing poems. Poking around my bedroom, I found a couple of high school English textbooks I hadn’t returned. Included there were Top of the Pops poems in English from across the centuries. There were: Scottish ballads like “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Edward, Edward,” John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” Robert Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder” and John Milton’s “Lycidas.” I loved all these poems. Plus the ones by Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. There was Whitman and Dickinson and Frost and Stevens and Dr. Williams. There was Hardy’s “My Darkling Thrush,” and W. B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Plus: Walter De La Mare’s “The Listeners,” T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” and Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”
It never occurred to me to try to write poems without the guidance of other poets and poems. Until that time I had only jotted down words and odd phrases, bits and pieces of overheard language, in a small notebook. I’d kept a journal of some kind, on and off, since I was in elementary school, beginning when I’d started a little newspaper in third grade called The Spieler. I published three issues of The Spieler—and wrote most of the articles myself. There was reporting on what happened in dodge ball at recess and after-school sports, plus interviews with my friends about their favorite super heroes. There were reviews of new movies and opinion pieces about Houston’s sports teams. There were limericks and short stories. You could say my mother was the The Spieler’s Managing Editor. The two of us would sit in the kitchen together in the evening after the dishes were put away, and she would read my hand-written articles and type them up on thin, inky, duplicate paper. My mother took to the task somewhat reluctantly. It seems to me it took a lot courage for her to raise sons. I could feel, sitting next to her in the kitchen, that it made her unhappy that I was a separate being, apt to get myself into dangers, apt to disappear. And so she created a heavy circle between us inside which there was often some shrapnel of suspicion. She had gathered her past into a kind of spirit pain, and even though she mothered with all her body and heart, she did so in a way that prevented you from wondering about her own dreams.
In the kitchen, though, it was clear it made her happy for a few hours that we were focused on this one thing together. She typed up my newspaper articles on her Selectric, and all through the house you could hear the clack of the typewriter’s white keys. You could hear the exasperation in her voice, too, insisting that I edit every page by hand in pencil and correct the misspelled words, which I did by looking them up in the blue Webster’s she’d received as a high school graduation present. Her voice was a prod to move, but I understood that its intent was to instruct. To be correct was true to her journey. It’s where she made her stand. As the two of us worked over The Spieler word by word, I must have taken it that a writer’s job is not complete without attention to precision. In her mind, I suspect, she hoped the effort would lead to a worthwhile profession.
That’s all the writing I did other than letters, which I loved composing and sending to friends. Throughout high school and into college my little notebooks, kept in a knapsack, had scribblings of ideas I never returned to. Things like—
Write about watching Orion.
Write about driving on Galveston Beach at night with one arm out the window.
Write about the genius of Dave Brubeck…of strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double-plays.
Write about cafes late at night and bars before noon.
Write about the color of wind.
These were notes to myself that I never returned to again. But they were also the implicit beginning of training myself to directly observe the world and the memories I was passing through. Meantime the requirement to submit a poetry sample to get into that college workshop I took seriously. I would stow away in my bedroom and read the samples of poems from the textbooks over and over. Then I’d try to imitate them. I loved Walt Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for the way it made me want to write about the Kennedy assassinations. I copied by hand poems by Dickinson and Keats and Hardy. I committed to memory five or six poems in those few weeks, including sections of the long lilac elegy by Whitman that begins—
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
It seemed to me these poets had over-inflected their faith in sentimentality. They could be brilliant, they could be spurred on by the magic of the imagination, but their wisdom was questionable. And yet I understood and took close into my heart what Walt Whitman says about grief, that it is the starting point of understanding our existence—
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions…
I wondered what Mrs. Kennedy might say about contemporary poetry—well, what I took to be contemporary. And so I pulled out my Latin translations and began to reacquaint myself with Catullus and Virgil and Horace. Reading back and forth between the Augustan poets of Rome and the Romantic and Modernist poets of England and America, I suddenly began to lose sight of the connection amongst them all. There was a fracturing, and I felt forced to choose between what I knew and what I dreamed about.
Most nights during that summer’s visit home I would drive across town to Mark Solis’s house. He lived with his mother south of the Third Ward near McGregor Park about half-an-hour east from Meyerland in what was then predominantly the Hispanic section of the city. We were friends in high school, and had stayed in touch through correspondence. Mark was a kind of fire-hydrant of ideas about writing and literature. When he spoke about his latest pleasures and opinions on music and literature and the movies, he shifted between a high squeal and a whisper. One night we were sitting in his living room where the little air-conditioner in the window sputtered while his mother messed around in the kitchen. Because she called him Mijo, I’d always called him that too. Mark wanted to be a novelist and had determined that summer to read fiction and poetry only in Spanish. I remember one night he was raving about Lorca and Marquez. I’d hadn’t read them yet. Another night it was Neruda and Borges. He was telling me how these guys could see the crooked, warped indentations of the earth. Marquez, he was saying, can make water dissolve with his writing. He moves beyond intention, Mark told me, and he shapes out of thin air what had once been lost. And Borges, he goes—lighting a cigarette now and stretching his legs out across the long vinyl couch, and with his other hand smoothing over his small brown mustache—Borges never hurries. His writing is tireless, but he’s always panting. His stories emerge—Mark was saying, and now leaning closer to me so he could whisper—from the wilderness. Borges’s words—Mark was wrapping up now, he was leaning his head back against the wall—are like dapples of obscurity.
Slow down, Mijo, I said—dapples of obscurity? He sat up again and squealed with a kind of rapture: Dapples, man. Blotches. Speckles.
I’ll show you dapples, I said. Have a listen to this Whitman, I said. I stood up and began reading all of part two of “Song of Myself.” I was pacing around the living room now, then I moved into the kitchen before heading out the sliding glass door onto the porch in the backyard. With Mark following me into the night air, I went on, gesturing and reading—
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are
crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the
distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the
eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the
fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising
from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d
the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
That’s dapples of ’scurity,’ Mark says. Scurity? What the hell is ‘scurity? We were both outside now, sitting in lawn chairs. We could hear the freeway traffic. The air had cooled into the 80s. Yeah, obscurity you can’t find, but ‘scurity’ you can because it overflows. You shall listen to all sides, man, he was repeating one of the lines he liked. He says, those aren’t obscure sides, are they? He was leaning close and whispering again. Our legs were practically touching. So what are they? We were practically touching our foreheads together, and I said, those are ‘scure sides, Mijo. He really made no sense but it was perfectly clear too. He leaned back into the lawn chair and chuckled. It was so fun to talk about writing this way. Mark took the Whitman from me and sight-translated part three into Spanish. And we went on like that until the end of the poem, English and then Spanish, for over an hour, with all the dapples of Walt Whitman.
One afternoon late in August, just before I returned to Boston, the movie Conrack came on Channel 39. Set in 1969 and based on Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Water Is Wide, the movie details the experiences of a young teacher, played by Jon Voight, who takes on the fifth through eighth grades in a black school on an island off the coast of South Carolina. Conrack—the name his students give him because they can’t pronounce “Conroy”—is shocked by his students’ ignorance. None can add two-plus-two or count to six. None knows the name of the country they live in or the state. He’s put off by the tough black woman principal, Mrs. Scott, played by Madge Sinclair, who tells him, “Treat your babies stern, treat ’em tough. Put your foot on ’em and keep it there.”
In time Conroy has the students learning about Beethoven and the pyramids, human anatomy, Willie Mays. He teaches them to swim and takes them on their first Halloween across the river through the white neighborhoods of Beaufort. The movie’s theme of accepting the burden of a white southerner in a rapidly changing world resonated with me easily back home in east Texas. The film opens with a montage of Conroy waking to classical music in his tidy Beaufort apartment contrasted with one of his future students, a thirteen-year-old black girl named Mary, played by Tina Andrews, waking up over on the island in a wooden shack that’s about the size of a large outhouse and built over a marsh. What inspired me was Conroy’s intention to seize each new day in the classroom as a journey into the mysteries of human experience. “Gather your rosebuds while ye may,” he declaims to his students, and I realized that was what I needed to do, too. Gather your rosebuds while ye may. When late in the film thirteen-year-old Mary tells Conrack that a man on the island has asked to marry her, he dismisses the whole idea of that future life for her. Surprised and hurt, she retorts, “Why you always picking on me?” Because, says Conrack—
The gospel of according to Conrack is ‘I will. Higher. Stronger. Faster. Better. Not a floor-scrubber but Wanda Landowska. Not a diaper-changer but Marion Anderson. Not a pig-slopper but Mary McLeod Bethune. Not a fry-cook but Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Aut Caesar, Aut Nullus’—that’s Latin—‘Either a Caesar or Nobody.’
When Conroy gets fired by the school district for his supposed radicalism, he drives his green van through the streets of segregated Beaufort and, speaking through a bullhorn, declares—as a writer must I will come to learn—his limitations:
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t mean to take you away from your daily routine. I know you’ve got stores to open, clothes to wash, marketing to do, and other chores. But I just lost my job and I want to talk. My name is Pat Conroy. I was paid $510 a month to teach a bunch of kids on a little island off this coast how to read and write. I also tried to teach them to embrace life openly, to reflect upon its mysteries, and to reject its cruelties. The school board of this fair city thinks that if they root out trouble-makers like me, the system will hold up and perpetuate itself. They think as long as blacks and whites are kept apart, where the whites get scholarships and the blacks get jobs picking cotton and tomatoes, with the whites going to college and blacks eating moon pies and drinking Coca-Cola, that they can weather any storm and survive any threat. Well, they’re wrong. Their day is ending. They’re the captains of a doomed army, retreating in the snow. They’re old men. And they cannot accept a new sun rising out of strange waters. Ladies and gentlemen, the world is very different now. It’s true this town still has its die-hards and nigger-haters. But they grow older and crankier with each passing day. When Beaufort digs another four-hundred holes in her plentiful graveyards and deposits there the rouged and elderly corpses and covers them with the sandy low-country soil, the Old South will be silenced and not heard from again. As for my kids, I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the fact that they have no share in the country that claims them, the country that’s failed them. All I know is I found much beauty in my time with them.
Later that night in Mark Solis’s backyard—crickets, car horns, the growl of tires from pickup trucks, the low-90s evening heat hard against the skin, Mark’s mother cooking up something again in the kitchen with the aroma of cayenne and cumin, smoked beef, and red rice—I repeated the last sentence of Conroy’s oration to Mark: “All I know is I found much beauty in my time with them,” I said. I want that. I told him I was sure that’s where my life was headed. I realized too that I would have to leave Texas and wished I could have managed my life differently and stayed there. But there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to go.
Mark went to his room and brought back a copy of something by Pablo Neruda and then read some lines to me in Spanish:
del río sofocante
en que con otros peces navegamos
desde el alba a la noche migratoria
y ahora en este espacio descubierto
volemos a la pura soledad.
What’s that in English, I asked, taking the book from him and thumbing for the page. He had the lines from heart—
Go ahead, get out
Of the suffocating river
with the other fish swimming
from dawn through the journey of night
and in this discovered space
fly to a pure solitude.
“Defeat” is the eleventh in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.