12 Winters Blog

Readings in Sherman and Galesburg

Posted in May 2011 by Ted Morrissey on May 1, 2011

I wanted to do a quick post as it’s been awhile. Sundays were always my best blogging days, but in recent weeks Sundays have been among my busiest days, and today is no exception. On April 20 I had an enjoyable reading for Men of Winter at Sherman Public Library. I was joined by my friend and University of Illinois Springfield colleague Lisa Higgs, who read from her newly released chapbook Lodestar. We had a nice little crowd (though one always imagines it might be larger). Timing is always difficult.  The Springfield-based Poets & Writers Literary Forum, of which I’m a proud member, had one event scheduled for April … also on the 20th, so that diverted some potential audience members; and the Cardinals were at home in St. Louis that night, which also siphoned off one or two folks. What can you do? Nevertheless, we were appreciative of those who did attend, and of Anita Walters, director of the library, and the library board for organizing the event.

Yesterday I was at Stone Alley Books & Collectibles in Galesburg, Illinois, my (and Carl Sandburg’s) hometown. It turned into more of a book-signing and not so much a reading, and crowd control wasn’t an issue, let’s say — but, on the plus side, my novel and I got a little exposure, achieved some potentially useful networking, and I got to hang out with my parents for a few hours.

There aren’t any readings planned in the next few weeks, which is just as well as I’ll have my hands full bringing my academic lives to closure, but on May 26 I’ll be reading at Benedictine University at Springfield and am very much looking forward to that event. Joanna Beth Tweedy and the fine folks of Quiddity international literary journal & public-radio program (for which I’m a proud reader) always do a splendid job of hosting a reading. Speaking of which, I’ve been enjoying the newest edition of Q, especially the CD of interviews with Scottish writers and other literary types.

Then May 28, Lisa Higgs and I are joining forces again for a reading at Jane Addams Books Shop in Champaign, Illinois — also a terrific independent bookstore. I’m hoping to get a few other events scheduled for the summer, and a few are in the works, but I don’t have any firm dates yet.

On the creative writing front, I’ve finished a complete draft of my novel in progress, which I’ve tentatively titled An Untimely Frost (I know, I know … Men of Winter … Frost, etc., etc. — luckily Weeping with an Ancient God is scheduled to come out next spring, thus breaking up the whole titles involving winter thing). An Untimely Frost is loosely based on Washington Irving’s supposed courtship of Mary Shelley. Before getting into the revising/editing too heavily, I’m in the process of re-reading the collection of Irving’s letters that I used to develop the novel’s “voice,” plus some other Irving pieces. I’ll probably spend a few weeks reading and note-taking; then in June roll up my sleeves on the revising/editing, hoping to have a finished draft my midsummer — that’s the plan anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m getting antsy to work on something totally new. Ideally I’d like to knock out a few short stories that I could try to have published in journals, and my noodle is brimming with ideas, but they all seem to be novel-length; and I’m beginning to wonder if I can even write a short story. I definitely want to write these other novels that I have in mind, but I didn’t necessarily want to launch into another two-, three-, four-year project immediately. First things first, though … fully finishing An Untimely Frost.

I continue to read and enjoy War and Peace (though I did take a teeny Tolstoy break and read Charles Portis’s True Grit a couple of weekends ago — and it was great fun!). Now onto my busy Sunday. . . .

tedmorrissey.com

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‘Melvill in the Marquesas’ archived

Posted in January 2011, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 29, 2011

“Melvill in the Marquesas” is the first section of my novella Weeping with an Ancient God, a fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s encounter with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands in 1842. This excerpt was originally published in The Final Draft, an online journal edited by Bob Rothberg, in fall 2010. The link to the excerpt has since gone dead, so I’ve decided to archive it here. I hope to see Weeping with an Ancient God appear along with a collection of stories by the end of the year.

~

Melvill in the Marquesas

July 13, 1842

Dripping.

It is the dripping and the insensible voices which bring him up from the depths.  Darkness and heat.  He tries to feel the pitch of the sea, now as familiar as the expansion of his lungs, but there is no movement.  Becalmed, he thinks.  He cautiously sniffs the air, anticipating the stench of boiling fat.  But there is a sweetness instead:  thick, oily.

He remembers.

Panic begins to surge in him, like the ocean’s surf, like the fever he has had . . . how many days?  The number will not come to him.  He wants to rise, to step over the darkshape bodies, to run outside, past the dripping cataract to the starlit ocean.

It is all impossible.  He heard their cannibal voices; at least two are awake.  And Toby?  He reaches out and touches the coarse cloth of Toby’s shirt and he hears the familiar sleep breathing of his friend.  Like so many nights in the belly of the Acushnet.  The dripping and Toby’s breathing take him back for a moment:  the roll of the ocean, the stinking blubber, the footfalls above on deck . . . and something else.

Toby moves in his sleep—perhaps he is fitful too—and Toby’s hand brushes against his side.  He lightly takes hold of Toby’s arm, feels the hairs at the wristbone, the slow steady pulse.  The rhythm of Toby’s blood calms him.  He tries to turn toward his friend, to watch his dark outline, but the pain in his leg will not allow it.  Shards of agony vibrate through his leg, which has become like wood or stone.  He tries to imagine dragging the swollen limb the many miles to the sea.  It is impossible.

The cataract and Toby’s pulse become synchronous, and Melvill achieves a kind of sleep.

It is daytime when he realizes the old man is talking to him.  Melvill is the only one still lying on the floor of the hut, which is rectangular with a bamboo and thatched ceiling about fifteen feet high at its centered apex.  Along the walls are baskets, earthen pots, woven mats.  Toby is gone.  It is unsettling again to see the fading ink on the old man’s almost naked body:  the bluegreen vines twisting along his still-muscular arms, the disintegrating bluegreen triangle on his forehead, the sinking ovals on his chest that make his nipples dark bull’s-eyes.  The old man repeats himself for perhaps the fourth time.  Melvill understands only two words.  “Hermes,” the way they have decided to pronounce his name; and “Korykory,” the young cannibal who seems to reside in the old man’s hut.

Melvill tries to stand but his leg provides him no leverage.  He believes he may topple when he feels Korykory lift him to a standing position on his good leg then deftly turn and hoist him onto his back.  Melvill is half a head taller and his bare toes nearly drag on the floor.  Korykory’s wavy brown hair is shaved in arcs over each ear and tapers to a point between his shoulder blades, where the shapes of longwinged birds in flight have been tattooed.

Outside Korykory lifts him higher on his back.  Men and women are calmly busy with the demands of the new day.  All these many months around the islands of the south Pacific and the stark nakedness of the natives still surprises him.  It seems the Typees prefer a short white cloth which hangs from their waist, or even more simply broad waxy leaves.  Korykory carries him past the cataract to where the stream is calmer.  Melvill is relieved to see Toby floating on his back in the clear water, his bare white chest bobbing like a seaduck among the other dark-skinned bathers.  Melvill wants to call out to Toby but he does not want to do anything to provoke the Typees.  Half a dozen somber warriors, with long spears and sharktooth necklaces, kneel on either side of the stream.

Korykory takes him beyond the pool of bathers about a hundred yards to a place where the stream begins to pick up speed again.  Next to the stream is a patch of high green reeds.  Korykory places him at the edge of the reeds and motions for him to proceed in.  Melvill is confused.  Korykory talks to him with patient meaningless words.  Then the native wades into the reeds himself, urging Melvill along.  The pliant reeds, which come to Melvill’s stomach, snap back after being trod upon.  Korykory squats with his back to the swift running water, and Melvill understands.  Korykory stands and tries to unbutton Melvill’s trousers.

He pushes his hand away, like a bothersome child’s.  “I’m with you.”

Korykory shrugs then moves his tappa cloth aside and urinates a thick stream into the water.  The islander waits at the edge of the reeds for Melvill to finish.  Korykory points back to the cluster of huts and the bathers.  Melvill climbs on and is carried toward the pool.  His leg is throbbing from the exertion.

As he is carried along Melvill views the mountains, lavender at their peaks, that Toby and he traversed for three days.  This is correct:  three days.  And the discomfort in his right leg began on the morning of their second day of flight from Nukuheva Bay.  By nightfall the discomfort had become the debilitating pain he suffers still.  So that is the number that would not come to him:  four days of pain.  In spite of his bad leg Melvill feels better that his head is clearer now, the fever abated somewhat.

At the bathing pool he sees Toby wrapped in a long swath of the white tappa, like a haphazardly placed toga.  The old Typee woman who lives in the hut where they slept is holding the bundle of Toby’s clothes and is having an animated dialogue with his friend.

“But, please, I need my clothing, at the very least my trousers.”  Toby is holding the toga together at the shoulder.

Korykory places Melvill down at the edge of the pool and the old woman gestures at Melvill’s checked shirt and duck trousers.

“I believe the witch wants your things too, old fellow,” says Toby.  “They probably would prefer not to cook us in our breeches—we will be too tough no doubt.”

As if she can understand the nature of their conversation, the old woman renews her efforts to explain and screws her face into a foul expression and touches her nose, meanwhile spitting out some Typee expression.

Melvill says, “I believe she is telling us she finds our sailor’s smell disagreeable.  Perhaps she is offering to launder out the sweat and sea salt.”

“Or she intends to burn and bury everything, part and parcel, forthwith.  In either case it appears we have no say in the matter.”

The stony warriors have formed a loose circle around the four of them, Toby and Melvill, the old woman and Korykory.  One of the warriors takes hold of Toby’s bare arm and urges him away from the water’s edge.  Melvill pulls his shirt off over his head then sits on the grassy bank to remove the rest of his clothing.  Korykory hands the wad to the old woman and he scoops up Melvill like his new bride and wades into the pool, releasing him when the stream is waist deep.

The water is cool and clean and a great relief to Melvill.  The buoyancy relieves much of the pain from his swollen leg.  Melvill ducks his head then allows it to bob to the calm surface.  The droplets that run from his scalp and ears taste of his own salt.  With the temporary relief of his leg Melvill realizes the profundity of his hunger and thirst.  For three days Toby and he ate only their ration of a dry mouthful of sea biscuit—“sailor’s nuts”—each noon hour.  The breadfruits they believed were in abundance beyond Nukuheva Bay were not to be found in the wild mountains.  They had agreed to refrain from breaking into ship’s stores and risk alerting their mates of their plan to take flight.

Water was also scarce.  At the end of their second day in the mountains they discovered a narrow stream.  It relieved their thirst, which was terrible and close to undoing them, especially Melvill, who was burdened with fever too.  But there was still no food and the biscuit was nearly gone.  Also they needed shelter from the sun and periodic rains.

They knew the little stream would lead down the mountain to a settlement—but which natives?  The Happars, of whom very little was known; or the Typees, whose cannibalism was infamous throughout the south Pacific.  They had no choice but to follow the stream.  Turning back was out of the question.  The penalty for jumping ship was severe:  flogging and treatment befitting a slave for the remainder of the voyage.  Their shipmates would not venture into cannibal terrain, no matter what reward was offered by Captain Pease; but a band of Nukuhevas could be easily commissioned for the job.  Three or four pounds of Brazilian tobacco and a modest supply of shot and powder would probably turn them out like a pack of red hounds.  In the mountains several times Toby and he were startled by a wild boar in the undergrowth which they mistook for a Nukuheva ambush.

Finally, descending from the mountains, they saw a fruitful valley and its huts with steeply pitched thatch roofs.  It was midday, the tropical sun high and hard.  For a great length of time—Melvill was beyond keeping track of it—they stayed under cover while Toby observed the distant goings on and tried to determine Happar or Typee or some other indigenous tribe.  They choked down the last crumbs of biscuit, which seemed to push Toby into a decision.  “I must know, old fellow, I must.”  And he rushed down into the valley.  Melvill watched his friend half stagger out of the shadow of the mountain, then he attempted to follow him.

His memory beyond this point is patchy.  He recalls falling and struggling up, many times.  He is helped—by Toby, he first believes, then realizes it is a girl and boy, dark and naked, on either side of him.  Then they are in a hut, the brown faces surrounding them.  They are given fresh water (so sweet!) and a kind of citrus mush to eat.  “Poeepoee.”  Toby is attempting to explain who they are and that they have come in peace—which must be obvious from their half-dead, unarmed condition.  It is night, the only light from the bluish glow of a taper outside the hut’s opening, when Toby and he come to understand that they have arrived in the valley of the Typees.  Melvill is too exhausted and feverish to be panicstricken.  The knowledge is like a lead weight in his brain, sinking deep as nearly all the natives exit the hut and he and Toby are left to sleep among these cannibals.

After his bath, Melvill, also in white tappa now, is taken to the hut and seated next to Toby at what seems like a place of honor.  They sit on woven mats in a corner while a dozen natives eat their breakfast facing them in a semicircle.  The hut is spacious, perhaps forty feet by twenty, and the interior walls reveal the simple but sturdy bamboo construction.  Here and there pegs protrude from the crisscross of bamboo so that various utensils hang on the walls along with bunches of breadfruits and bananas.  Melvill and Toby are each given a bowl of poeepoee plus another of coconut meat and a half coconut shell filled with a citrus juice.  Eating with their fingers the tender chunks of coconut are not a problem but the poeepoee is another matter.  The day before, starving, they scooped it and poured it like a stringy soup, making a mess of themselves.  This morning Marheyo, the old man who is their host, tries to show them the proper technique.  Using only one finger he twirls it in the bowl nearly up to the last knuckle until a thick ball of poeepoee is wrapped around; then he sticks the entire finger in his mouth and pulls it out sucked clean.  Melvill discovers the technique requires practice.

The natives have begun several conversations and are paying little attention to Toby and Melvill.

Toby swirls his shell of juice before drinking it.  “How’s the leg holding up?”  Toby has raked his reddish blond hair straight back.  Like Melvill’s, it is long enough to bind in a ponytail.  Toby’s beard is patchy while Melvill’s is dark and thick.

“Not well I’m afraid.  Perhaps rest will help.”  Melvill finishes chewing a chunk of coconut meat.  “Why are we receiving service at the captain’s table?”

“I can’t figure it—unless they are fattening us for the feast.”

Melvill had had the same thought.  “All this trouble just to murder us.”

“The cattleman and the butcher are not a lazy lot.”

When breakfast is finished the old woman, Tinor, places all the dishes into a large wickerwork basket and takes them from the hut.  Marheyo speaks earnestly to Melvill.  The old man repeatedly takes hold of his own right leg, kneading the flesh.

“Yes, my limb is ill,” says Melvill, lost.

Marheyo gestures to Toby that it is time to leave the hut with the other guests.  The native waves his long brown fingers like he is shooing a cat.  When it is just Melvill and the old man together, he speaks emphatically again and points to the mat where Melvill had slept the night before.  Melvill understands to move there.  Marheyo gently pushes him to a reclining position; and he walks to the hut’s opening.  Maybe he merely wants me to rest, thinks Melvill, already feeling sleepy.  But in a minute or two Marheyo appears to be greeting someone.  Melvill watches the old man’s back, with its withered fish tattoos, as he speaks to the new arrival about Melvill’s leg, all the while massaging his own leg.

A kind of shaman? wonders Melvill.

Marheyo steps aside to let the visitor enter.  Melvill is surprised to see a young girl—fourteen or fifteen perhaps—carrying a tortoise-shell bowl.  She is the most beautiful island girl Melvill has seen in an ocean filled with vibrant beautiful girls.  Marheyo seems to be introducing her.  He says her name “Fayaway” several times and each time the old man touches his chest:  illustrating her closeness to his heart?  Fayaway is thin with long umberblack hair.  She appears to be free of tattooing except for two dots at the crests of her upper lip.

Melvill is up on his elbows.  Fayaway kneels beside him and puts her hand on his shoulder to urge him to lie flat.  There is a bracelet of small blue feathers on her wrist.  She moves the tappa away exposing his swollen leg from hip to foot.  His skin appears almost phosphorescent in the shaded interior of the hut.  The girl gently explores the leg, moving her light fingers over this thigh and knee and shin bone.  She and Marheyo speak for a moment.  To explain their conversation, Marheyo takes a banana from a bunch hanging on the wall.  He uses his bony fingers to show Melvill the yellow skin is smooth and unblemished, then the old man peels the skin and breaks the banana in half, exposing the tiny black seeds inside.

“Yes, there’s no outward sign of my distress, no laceration, nor boil, nor prick—so the problem must be inward.”  He can sense the fever is beginning to overtake his reason again.

Marheyo has a parting word for Fayaway then he leaves his hut eating the banana.  It is a bright day and the old man appears to be swallowed by the light.

Fayaway dips her small hands into the bowl and they come out glistening with an oily gelatin.  Starting with Melvill’s toes she slowly rubs the slick ointment into his skin.  Frequently she glances at Melvill’s face, perhaps to see if she is hurting him.  Melvill is struck by the similarities between her glittering eyes and her half-erect nipples:  the same size, the same rich brown.  The four perfect circles dance like alien moons in the sky of his feverish mind.

As Fayaway’s hands, which are now his entire reality, move past his knee Melvill cannot subdue the sexual arousal he is feeling.  He hopes that it is hidden beneath the folds of cloth but senses it is not.  Her hands move over his thigh with the same slow rhythm.  At first the ointment was cool but now a penetrating heat has begun at his foot and ankle, and is moving up at the same pace as Fayaway’s massaging fingers.  When she reaches his hip she gently lifts his leg enough to coat the underside in the gelatin.  When she is finished Fayaway instructs him to close his eyes by pointing to them with her slender fingers and closing her own eyes for a moment.

Melvill does as he is instructed.  Soon his entire leg is engulfed in the heat.  His body is totally relaxed, lifeless, except for his twitching organ, uncomfortable under the folded tappa.  He wants to uncover himself to relieve the pressure but senses Fayaway is still at his side.  No, not Fayaway . . . Madeline.  He believes he can smell the prostitute’s pungent city perfume, can feel the irregularities in the feather mattress of her New Bedford boardinghouse room.  Then why not pull back the sheet?  Propriety is not an issue, only price, and he has what remains of Captain Pease’s advance.  Eighty-four dollars minus—?

But propriety is an issue for a reason he cannot recall—only its vitalness.  And there is the dripping . . . as the icy rain overflows Madeline’s clogged gutter.  Dripping, yes, but aboard the Acushnet now . . . the arousal still pulsating with the heat-rhythm of his leg.  The dark figures below deck, the ominous whispering, the ubiquitous stench of the cooking whale sperm.  There is the leaden weight of threat on his chest—worse than fear because fear is fleeting.  This threat lingers, like a cancer, and there is no escape at sea. . . .

Strong hands are upon him and Melvill strikes out.  Once, twice.  But his arms are restrained as he is lifted.  He wants to shout out but he cannot recall to whom.  He finds his captor’s face.  Korykory.  The Typee carries him outside.  The sunlight, although partially filtered through the tropical green canopy, is painful to his eyes.  Korykory transports him to the bathing pool for the second time that day.  He helps Melvill wash the ointment from his leg.  In places the gelatin has turned white and caky.  Melvill attempts to hide his buoyant semierect penis.

Still floating, Melvill feels weak but the pain in his leg has subsided.  Korykory points to a grove of trees and says something about Toby.  Melvill thinks he understands.  “Yes, take me to Toby, please.”  He is helped from the stream, then he covers himself in the white toga and climbs upon Korykory’s back.  The momentary muscular strain causes the native’s tattooed birds to take a single wingstroke.  When they are past the boundary of trees Melvill sees a grassy clearing in which there are several huts of varying sizes, including one that is several times larger than the average.  Melvill notes that many of these huts are built on a foundation of high stone slabs.  Korykory takes him directly to the largest hut, the one that dominates the clearing, and uses footholds that are notched into the stone base to carry Melvill to the entrance.  Melvill is amazed at Korykory’s vitality.  There were strong men on the Acushnet, men who could do the heavy work of the sea for hours without tiring; but the strongest among them could not have carried Melvill the distance that Korykory has and then ended the trip with a vertical climb up eight feet of rock.

The front wall of the hut is recessed a few yards so that the stone base forms a portico, which is protected by the extended thatch roof of the hut.

Korykory, only slightly winded, waves his hand before the enormous hut and says, “Ti.”

Melvill, balancing on his good leg and Korykory’s shoulder, repeats the word and Korykory happily affirms the connection.  Korykory suddenly assumes an air of seriousness and seems to resist an impulse to step back.  Melvill realizes that a Typee has come from the hut.  The man is considerably older than Melvill but is made as muscularly as Korykory or any of the young warriors he has seen.  He is richly decorated in tattoos, more so even than the old-man host.  He puts his hand on his bare flat stomach and says, “Mehevi.”  He steps aside and invites Melvill into the Ti.  For the short distance Melvill elects to hobble inside with Korykory’s support rather than be carried.  A tobacco-smoke smell reaches him immediately in the dark hut.  The scent is pleasant, although distinct from the cuts of tobacco he is used to.  The rich smoke seems to be impeding the adjustment of his eyes.  Not quite seeing them, he can sense the dark shapes sitting or reclining on the floor.  Melvill has the disconcerting feeling that these shapes are animals peering up at him, wolves and predatory cats.  In the entire hut filled with bodies he hears no voices.  Perhaps it is his visitation that has caused the Typees’ muteness, or it is simply the way of the place.

Korykory is behind guiding him through the clusters of natives.

“Old fellow, there you are!”

Melvill, relieved, can hear the relief in Toby’s voice too.  Korykory helps him to a mat by his friend.

“I was afraid they’d decided you would be the appetizer and I the main course.”  Toby is holding a short wooden pipe.

Mehevi has sat facing them.  From a basket he produces a pipe similar to Toby’s.  It is already stuffed with tobacco.  Toby takes a small stick and puts one end into the bowl of his own pipe until the tip is glowing orange; then he uses it to set off Melvill’s pipe.

Melvill inhales deeply and lets the warm smoke out of his mouth and nose.  “A tad rough but a godsend nonetheless.”

Toby nods.  “Must be a local leaf.”

Melvill notices the murmur of conversation throughout the hut.  Apparently the silence was a reaction to his arrival.

“How’s the leg now, old fellow?”

“Perhaps a bit more limber but still a fount of pain.  My physician is lovely, but I’m afraid I may need less primitive doctoring.”

“I’m afraid we may yet become the guests of honor at a Typee feast.”

Mehevi, who has been smoking silently, smiles and says, “Typee,” his white teeth aglow in the shadowy Ti.

Melvill’s eyes have adjusted finally so he scans the interior.  There are dozens and dozens of Typees, young men and old, all sitting or reclining with their pipe; on woven mats that are either rolled into cushions or flat on the cool stone floor.  They are in groups of four to six or seven, carelessly arranged.  Ever since entering the Ti Melvill has been sensing dark circular objects hanging at regular intervals on the walls.  With his improved vision he looks up to discover the dark shapes are human heads.  The pipe nearly falls from his lips.  “Toby . . . on the walls.”

Toby glances up for an instant.  “Yes, quite a pleasant decorating touch isn’t it?”

The faces look to have the texture of smoked meat, desiccated and shrunk close to the bone.  The eyes have been replaced with something white and iridescent, chipped stone or seashell.  The heads glare wildly from their mounted positions.  Melvill thinks perhaps they retain the shadow of their horrorstruck expression at the instant of death.

Mehevi must notice Melvill staring and he gestures toward the heads and offers an explanation.  The only word that Melvill understands is “Happar,” the Typees’ neighboring enemies.

Melvill says to Toby, “Perhaps this Ti is one large hunting lodge and these heads the cherished trophies.”

“Yes, and a men’s club as well.”

They spend a peaceful hour in the Ti with their pipes and the indistinct native voices.  From time to time Melvill can imagine that the voices are mumbling English, the meanings just beyond his comprehension.  Also, the displayed heads start to become as familiar as sconces.  Even though there is no signal that Melvill can detect, all at once the Typees extinguish their pipes and begin to herd outdoors.  Melvill and Toby follow suit, Melvill with Korykory’s quick assistance.

The women and children have come to the grove and set up a midday meal.  Korykory takes Melvill and Toby to a spot where the old couple, Marheyo and Tinor, are waiting with the meal.  They sit on sheets of white tappa in the grass in the narrow shadow of the Ti.  The meal is the same as breakfast except for the substitution of coconut milk for the citrus juice.  Melvill is surprised at the number of Typees who are having their meal in the grove.  It is an aboriginal scene, unchanged in hundreds of years, perhaps thousands.  But their time is limited, speculates Melvill.  He thinks of the three French men-of-war anchored in Nukuheva Bay, and of how the occupation has already changed the coastal region of the island, and of how the French will not be satisfied with only the coast and will systematically work their way inland.  He thinks of how the Christian missionaries will follow the French like the scavenger sharks in the wake of the Acushnet.

“This certainly is superior to starvation,” says Toby after sucking poeepoee from his finger, “but I keep thinking about sinking my teeth into a thick beefsteak.”

“One day soon I’m certain—when we reach the Hawaiian Islands.”  Melvill hears the skepticism in his voice.

Melvill wants to stand when Fayaway approaches but his leg will not allow any sudden movement.  The beautiful girl speaks to Marheyo and Tinor then she says something to Melvill—he guesses about his leg.  Before he can find a way to respond she picks up a large bowl of boacho and offers it to him.  Melvill points to his smaller bowl which contains the fruity mush.  Fayaway insists that he take more.

Toby says, “I believe the doctor is prescribing a remedy, old fellow.”

Melvill pours the yellowish boacho into his bowl.  “Thank you.”

Fayaway continues kneeling at Marheyo’s side talking to the old man.  In profile, with her dark hair spilling over her shoulders, she appears totally nude.

Toby runs his finger along the rim of his bowl.  “Aside from the distinct possibility of ending up as sustenance, the Marquesas have their redeeming qualities.”

Melvill does not comment.

When the meal is finished Tinor and Fayaway load the empty bowls into the large basket, placing the folded tappa on top.  A majority of the men, including the decorated Mehevi, saunter toward the Ti.  Melvill, weary, mounts Korykory’s back thinking the Ti is their destination too; however Korykory begins following Marheyo, who is walking directly away from the massive hut.

“Where are we going?”  Melvill watches over his shoulder as Toby stands hesitant for a moment then shrugging turns toward the Ti.

Korykory must sense the meaning of Melvill’s question and offers a lengthy but fruitless Typee reply.  Not bridging the gap with the old man they follow, Korykory takes a path out of the ring of huts; and Melvill discovers that beyond the grove about a third of a mile are dozens of small flat-roofed structures.  Each one they pass has a totem of carved stone blocking its black opening.  Many of these small huts are in disrepair and collapsing in on themselves.  Several of the totems have fallen over.  Another footpath to the left and they come to a hut which is under construction.  Korykory unloads Melvill near a log on which he can rest then Korykory and Marheyo begin working on the bamboo-reed hut.  They work without speaking, each knowing his part in the process.  Korykory uses a sharp-edged stone to snap the bamboo at the proper length.  The reeds are slightly larger around than a man’s thumb.  Marheyo skillfully lashes the bamboo together with vines to extend the second wall.  The first wall stands erect supported by thick tree limbs; the wall being built is approximately a third of the first wall.  Each is about six feet high, estimates Melvill.  He is surprised that Korykory uses such a primitive method to size the bamboo because Melvill has noticed metal blades and tools among the Typees—evidence of some contact, if only indirectly, with sailors.

The spot where Melvill has been placed is shady and drowsiness soon begins to overtake him with the rise in his fever again.  He waits quietly hoping that Korykory will finish his part and return him to Marheyo’s hut, or at least the Ti.  But Marheyo and Korykory work without pause and there are so many dozen bamboo reeds to be sized.

Melvill hobbles a short distance to a grassy place near the log and lies down.  The grass feels cool and soft, and soon Melvill is asleep.  The snapping and lashing of the bamboo enters his sleepworld to become the sounds aboard the Acushnet:  the reeving of the sails, the banging of the tackles against the masts, the securing of supplies below deck.  And there is something missing . . .  someone missing.  Melvill watches the search boats circling astern, gray boats on a gray sea, and Melvill knows the truth.  He believes he knows.

When Melvill awakens Fayaway is sitting on the log watching Marheyo and Korykory work.  The change in light filtered through the leafy canopy—now more yellow than white—tells Melvill it is late afternoon.  Fayaway smiles down at Melvill then speaks to the silent workers.  She says the name “Hermes” and she uses the word “kiki,” which relates to food or eating, Melvill has learned.

Melvill tries to raise himself and finds that the pain in his leg is less acute but the stiffness is profound—truly like a piece of driftwood.  He cannot bend his knee at all, barely his ankle.  Fayaway, seeing his difficulty, calls to Korykory and the two of them help Meilvill to the log.  Melvill notices the differences in their grip on each bare arm:  Korykory’s hands are callused and powerful; Fayaway’s small and light, like a bird’s wings.

While Melvill and Fayaway sit she is explaining something about the structure being built.  Marheyo this, she says, and Marheyo that.  The second, or back, wall is erect and the third wall is a quarter finished.  Marheyo and Korykory are tidying up their materials, wrapping the bamboo into long palmetto leaves, balling the vines.  When they are finished, Korykory readies himself to carry Melvill, who feels a pang of guilt at not being able to walk.  After all, Korykory has been laboring all afternoon and now he must carry Melvill the great distance from the secluded flat-roofed huts, past the grove with the Ti, and back to the cluster of huts where Marheyo and Tinor live near the waterfall.  There is nothing to do about his guilt.  Marheyo and Fayaway walk in front, Korykory with Melvill behind.  Fayaway, though tall for a Typee female, comes only to Marheyo’s shoulder, and the old man is somewhat stooped.  Their bare feet leave no trace on the hard earth.

The grove where they lunched is quiet.  Melvill believes there must be dozens of men in the Ti smoking and socializing but he sees no one near its black entrance.  It is as if the entire grove is sleeping—even the huts and the wildlife—or holding its breath, suspending living for a time.  The quiet makes Melvill uneasy.  He wants to ask, “Where is everyone?” but anticipates no response.  Half dozing on Korykory’s back, Melvill recalls legends of magic spells putting entire villages to sleep, of evil palls cast upon castles.   Always it is an heroic act which lifts the spell.  He senses no heroism in himself nor in Toby.  Desperation, trepidation, primal fear—just beneath the surface.

As they approach Marheyo’s hut Melvill sees Tinor and other old women bent over a large piece of white cloth working it with some sort of hand tool, like a small rolling pin.  They are chattering but stop as soon as Marheyo’s group draws near.  Marheyo speaks briefly to his wife, or so their relationship seems to Melvill, before Korykory takes Melvill inside.  Fayaway continues past Marheyo’s, presumably to her family’s hut.

Korykory eases Melvill down then immediately goes to a corner of the hut and lies in a fetal position.  In seconds, while Melvill is still watching, Korykory is asleep.  At first, in the dim light, Melvill does not recognize the things stacked on his sleeping mat but touches them and realizes they are his clothes.  He is happy to get out of the makeshift toga and put on his familiar shirt and underbreeches and trousers.  They are freshly laundered and have a pleasant floral scent.  He leaves his shoes and stockings on the mat.

Melvill sits, thinking that is all he will do, but the drowsiness of fever quickly overcomes him and he lies down.  He recalls sleeping in a strange room with his older brother.  It is Christmastime and outdoors a thick blanket of snow covers the ground.  Melvill hears his father’s voice . . . downstairs, talking and laughing—storytelling.  Melvill reaches for his old patchwork quilt but it is not cold really.  His groping hand finds the white tappa and he cover himself.  His father’s story is a dissipating echo, like invisible dripping in a cave.  He tries in vain to revive the dream of New England, to resurrect the ghost of his father.  The darkness of the cave becomes real when Melvill awakens.  The hut is black.  He sits upright and looks at the opening.  It is a rectangle of lavender twilight.  Korykory is gone.  Melvill struggles up and goes to the opening.  No one is outside.  From Marheyo’s hut Melvill can see the grove with the Ti and between the blacktrunk trees is the orange glow of fire.  Supper time? he wonders.  Then why was I not called?  And where is Toby?

Because of his leg, the Ti seems a great distance but Melvill begins to make his way.  He is surprised that the ground is cool under his bare feet.  He expects it to feel like baked terracotta, only minutes from the kiln.  Walking is painful and he wishes he had a sturdy stick.  He can detect the smell of woodsmoke now and of roasting meat.  He thinks of Toby, whom he has not seen for hours.  Queasiness slows his already slow pace.  The light from the fire in the grove reminds him of the bellies of the cookstoves on the Acushnet, day and night boiling down the blubber when a kill has been made.  The sickening smell of the melting fat, which permeated every space on the ship, comes to him again, adding to his nausea.

The light of the fires—the one in the grove and the recollected fire from the ship—nearly blinds him.  Melvill stops, as if the twin fires have consumed his energy, his will.  It is all he can do to keep from falling to the ground.

The Typees who emerge from the grove are like two shadow-warriors:  black shapes against the fireglow.  Melvill wants to run but cannot.  He collapses when the dark figures reach him.  Each taking an arm and a leg they carry him to the grove.  Melvill, sick with fear, tries to shout out—for Toby, Korykory, Fayaway—but he has no voice.  In the grove he sees that it is not one great fire but many fires.  Their heat, combined with the sultry tropical heat, is intense.  The warriors, who at least have distinct features in the firelight, carry him to one of the smaller ground-level huts adjacent to the Ti.

“Old fellow!”  Toby rushes over.  “I had really given you up.”  He helps Melvill to sit upright.  They are alone in the small dark hut.

“What’s happening?”  Melvill’s voice is a hoarse whisper.

“I can’t say for certain.  They’ve been dancing about these fires for some time—rather ceremoniously.”

Melvill leans over to see out.  “Is the ceremony for us, do you think?”

Toby rearranges himself so they are on either side of the hut’s opening.  “I can’t say; but it seems likely.”

“Why not get on with in then?”

“It is their religion, I suppose.  You know that religious rites are not known for their swiftness.”

“Toby, you must escape.  I’m in no condition to flee, but you. . . .”

“My chances out there are no better, especially in the dark.  There are hundreds of them.  Thousands maybe.  The whole damned cannibal nation has turned out for the event.”

They sit in silence for a time.  Outside the fires crackle and the Typees dance and chant.  Melvill wonders about the decisions they have made, jumping ship and setting out for the wild country with no provisions and no weapons—totally at the mercy of who or what would find them.  The whole episode makes no sense.  There is no logic to any of their moves.  Melvill, the gifted student, the debate society president, is awed by the rashness of his actions.  He and Toby were doomed the instant they left Nukuheva Bay—running in that torrential downpour like freed schoolboys.

“I’m sorry it has come to this,” says Melvill.

“It’s not your fault, old fellow.  We made the plans together.  I knew what the possibilities were.”  Toby glances outside.  “They’re coming.”

Their hands clasp on the sandy floor of the hut.

Melvill recognizes one of the trio approaching as Korykory.  Another is Mehevi, the richly tattooed chieftain.  The third Typee, who stays close to Mehevi’s side, Melvill does not know.  All three, backlit, appear to wear plumes of fire for headdress.

Korykory kneels at the hut’s opening.  He holds a flat piece of wood.  He says something “kiki.”

“They bring food,” repeats Melvill.

On the wood are several strips of smoking meat.

“Yes,” says Toby, releasing Melvill’s hand, “but my god, what kind of meat?”

“Kiki,” insists Korykory thrusting the strips toward Melvill.

Melvill’s stomach is turning, partly from the fear that has been consuming him and partly from the idea of this cannibal offering.  He recalls the severed heads in the Ti.  “No kiki,” he says weakly, shaking his head.

Korykory seems confused, almost embarrassed.  He takes a pieces of the meat and bites it himself.  “Puarkee.”  He grins and chews the meat; juice trickles down his chin.  “Puarkee.”  He holds the remainder of the meat to Melvill’s lips.

Melvill, his head pounding from the tension and the fever, hesitates then opens his mouth slightly.  Korykory pushes the meat past Melvill’s parted lips.  He fights the urge to gag as he begins to chew.  The rich flavor floods his tongue and it is familiar.  He swallows some of the meat.  “Pork.  The natives are roasting some of those wild boars.  It’s delicious.”

Korykory, visibly happy, turns to Toby, who takes a strip of meat.  He cautiously puts it in his mouth.  “You’re right—damned succulent too.”

They come from the hut and sit near one of the fires.  The Typees dance and chant and tell their incomprehensible warrior stories.  The halfmoon is high when the feast finally ends.

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Men of Winter

Men of Winter paperback proofs, and ‘Melvill’ available again

Posted in November 2010 by Ted Morrissey on November 28, 2010

I received the proof of the paperback edition of Men of Winter, and it looks good. The back cover and spine are a bit out of whack and the printer will have to correct them before the presses roll — but it’s very close to being done. The ebook and paperback are available on the Punkin House Press website, specifically punkinbooks.com, listed in the fiction section. Now I’ll have to focus on finding places to read and otherwise promote the novel. I’d like to enter it in some contests for first novels, etc., but, looking online, several require copies of the book by early or mid December, which seems odd to me — why not mid January so that all 2010 novels could be submitted? Some accept bound galleys in lieu of the book itself, but I’m not really in a position to get something like that together either. These are small matters, however, and overall it’ll be good to get it out in the world.

Speaking of being out in the world, the excerpt from my novella Weeping with an Ancient God, titled “Melvill in the Marquesas,” is available again online. It was published in the journal The Final Draft, but was taken down after a few weeks. It now has permanent link (thank you, again, to editor Bob Rothberg). I hope to publish the novella along with a collection of previously published stories in the coming year. I was gratified that I received three offers of publication after The Final Draft had taken it (even though I’d immediately withdrawn it), and at least two other editors who took the time to say how much they liked it even though they weren’t offering to publish it. Perhaps, then, there will be some interest in the novella when it becomes available in full. For years novellas were very difficult to place with a publisher, but given our culture’s shrinking attention span, perhaps the twenty-first century will see a revival in the novella form.

Contributing to this revival may be the ereader. I’m reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and last week I stumbled upon another blogger, Diane Farr, reading the novel, but doing so via a kindle. In her blog, The Best by Farr, she talks about liking her new kindle, but, reading something like Anna Karenina, it’s difficult to get a sense of where she is in the book. I haven’t tried using an ereader, but I think I would miss the concrete sense of knowing I’m a  third through the book, or half, or nearly finished, etc. Perhaps, then, the boom in ereadership will make shorter works like novellas especially attractive. Diane makes some interesting observations about Anna Karenina and the experience of reading it, so check out her blog post (linked above).

I’ve also returned to some degree to the Quiddity fold. I had been an editor for the journal for its first four issues, but I resigned to focus on finishing my Ph.D. and devoting more energy to my own writing and publishing. I was especially involved in producing the journal. They’d encouraged me to come back to that post, of producing the journal, but I didn’t want to invest that much time (and brain power); however, I have started reading for the journal again. I have a batch of newly arrived poems, for example, that I’ll take a look at this afternoon. Luckily, one of my former students, Laurel Williams, was able to take the production job; I know she’ll be a tremendous addition to the Q crew.

On the creative writing front, it took about six weeks but I finished a draft of chapter 19 of my novel in progress, the Authoress. Part of that time was spent reading and researching Romeo and Juliet, so it wasn’t, strictly speaking, all writing time — but the reading and researching were necessary parts of the composing process. With all the hubbub  associated with bringing out Men of Winter, I’ve nearly forgotten about my story “The Composure of Death” that will be appearing in Pisgah Review — but I’m very pleased to be a part of Pisgah‘s pages, edited by Jubal Tiner. I suspect the issue with “Composure” will be out in the spring. I’m also proud and honored to have a how-to piece coming out some time in the next few months in Writers Ask, a publication of Glimmer Train Press.

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Quiddity fall release gala, and Men of Winter proofs

Posted in October 2010 by Ted Morrissey on October 24, 2010

This past Thursday I attended the fall issue release gala for Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program at historic Brinkerhoff Home on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield. As usual, it was an enjoyable and stimulating evening (even though the guest of honor, issue 3.2, was a no-show as its cover was still drying at the printer’s — a not uncommon occurrence at release parties). Most of the usual cast of characters were present: Joanna Beth Tweedy (founding editor and host of the radio program), David Logan (prose editor), Judi O’Brien Anderson (poetry editor), Michael Gammon (layout and web design), Pamm Callebrusco (associate editor), and Marianne Stremsterfer (art editor), plus loyal interns John McCarthy and Stacie Lynn Taylor.

Best of all, there were readings by David Bertaina, poet and translator of Semitic languages; and by Tracy Zeman, “nature poet of the sublime.” As if that weren’t enough, Croatian artist Magda Osterhuber was present to discuss her paintings that were being exhibited in Becker Library Gallery, a short walk from (historic and haunted) Brinkerhoff Home.  Throw in some food and wine and acoustic-guitar folk music, and you’ve got a pretty splendid way to spend a Thursday evening.  Work by Bertaina, Zeman and Osterhuber are included in Quiddity 3.2.  Here is 3.2’s table of contents, which also allows you to hear some of the work included in the issue — a feature that most literary journals don’t offer. The Quiddity radio programs are archived here.

On the Men of Winter front, the publisher sent me the page proofs, which I returned yesterday with corrections — so a release date begins to loom larger and larger, though it isn’t set in stone just yet.  I mentioned in a previous post that the first chapter of my novella Weeping with an Ancient God was published in The Final Page. A new edition of The Final Page has since been posted, and it seems the journal doesn’t archive their older issues — in other words, the excerpt, “Melvill in the Marquesas,” was available online for a few weeks, but, alas, is no more. A couple of editors of other journals expressed an interest in it after it had already been taken by The Final Page, so I may see if someone is interested in “reprinting” the excerpt; or I may just archive it here at 12 Winters Blog. I was really hoping it’d be floating around on the web for a few months, in anticipation of the novella’s publication.

In my novel in progress, the Authoress, I surpassed the 300-manuscript-page mark, and I’m very much enjoying the writing process. I had come to a chapter (the nineteenth) whose function I understood, but the narrative particulars of which were fuzzy, to put it mildly. But I’ve worked through some of those issues and now have a definite bead on the chapter, which is a much better feeling than the murky one I had just a few days ago. I liked another idea, but the narrative timeline just wouldn’t support the development I had in mind — which worked to my benefit as the new trajectory is superior in just about every way. For me, writing a novel is a bit like filling up a hallway closet with stuff, and everything I need to complete the project is in there — sometimes it’s just a matter of sorting through its accumulated contents to find the items I need.

I’m still reading — and enjoying! — Adam Braver‘s Crows over the Wheatfield (though I cheat every now and then, and read some Gogol).

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Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Earl’s “Forbidden Beowulf”

Posted in September 2010 by Ted Morrissey on September 4, 2010

It’s been awhile since I entered the blogosphere, so I thought I’d do a post.  As I’d written about a couple of times, at the end of the summer I was reading a collection of Turgenev’s stories that I enjoyed very much, which encouraged me to pick up a collection of Dostoevsky’s shorter works that I’ve had lying about for, well, years, and have been wanting to crack open.  So I have.  I’ve been reading the collection’s opening tale, “The Double” (1846, trans. George Bird), and have found it a classic indeed.  Thus far it’s been both haunting and funny by turns.  The descriptive paragraphs are most remarkable.  Here’s the opening to one that I read over again and again because it’s just so good:

It was a dreadful night, a real November night, dark, misty, rainy and snowy, a night pregnant with colds, agues, quinsies, gumboils, and fevers of every conceivable shape and size — put in a nutshell, bestowing all the bounties of a St. Petersburg November. (p. 38, Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, ed. Ronald Hingley, Perennial Classic, 1968)

There is much to love here, but I especially admire the image of the pregnant night and the sarcasm of referring to the bounties of such a night. My first encounter with Dostoevsky, I believe, was reading Crime and Punishment in a world lit seminar while working on my doctorate. I’m partly on my Russian writers kick because I’ve always been interested in their works but have managed to miss most of them in my life as a student — but also the great William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore said somewhere (maybe it was on the Gaddis list serve) that there hasn’t been much work done on the Russians’ influence of Gaddis’s fiction, and there ought to be. Moore’s comment, wherever I read it, has stuck with me, and I fancy that eventually I’ll try to connect some of the dots between Gaddis and the Russians.

In addition to Dostoevsky, I’ve spent the last couple of days reading through James W. Earl’s article “The Forbidden Beowulf: Haunted by Incest” in the March 2010 PMLA. I’m a great admirer of Earl’s Beowulf scholarship, and it was very useful to me when working on the Beowulf chapters of my dissertation, though I came to it rather late in the process. A fellow after my own academic heart, Earl brings much to bear on the poem from other (perhaps unexpected) disciplines — psychology, yes (which, of course, is expected), but, as in this article, a little astronomy and quantum physics as well.  He writes,

How can we tell whether an author knows or does not know such backstories [e.g., Homer’s knowing the judgment of Paris] if he or she does not tell them? The situation is a little like detecting dark matter in the universe: the best we can do is try to detect subtle distortions in the matter that we can see. (p. 289)

Something that I really appreciate about Earl’s technique in the article is that, while he does put forward a thesis, his organizational strategy is essentially thinking through the related issues and the various scholars who have weighed in on them, and considering how their views may affect his own leanings. He concludes his third paragraph by saying, “I pose many questions and try to untangle such a mess of evidence that it is bound to get confusing at times” (p. 289). His erudition is impressive, to put it mildly, yet his tone is . . . inviting, one might even say conversational, at times anyway — of course, it’s a conversation with a very learned scholar who wants you to be learned too, someday, if not today exactly. Earl suggests that the mood of foreboding that Beowulf tends to cast upon readers, experienced and inexperienced ones alike, has more to do with what’s not said in the poem than what is on the page:

Beowulf is haunted by these [Scylding] analogues, and much of what is disturbing about the poem is due to this haunting. The poem is disturbing in many ways, among them the feeling one gets after long familiarity with it that something is missing, that something important is not said — or, as Freud might say, that something is repressed. (p. 292)

Given my interests in the psychic origins of creativity — of creating fictive narrative especially — Earl’s observations are most provocative.

On the creative writing front, the editor of Pisgah Review, Jubal Tiner, suggested that my story “The Composure of Death” should keep its title, but that we use the quote from Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” — where I derive the phrase — as an epigraph to the story: a good suggestion indeed. I sent an electronic copy of the story, epigraph included, to Jubal last week. I’m not sure which issue the story will appear in.

With the arrival of September, the floodgates have opened and lit journals across the land are accepting submissions again. As such, I’ve been busily getting “Melvill in the Marquesas” (the opening chapter of my unpublished novella Weeping with an Ancient God) in the mail (e- or otherwise). In the process of looking for journals to send it to, I came across a unique one: Textofiction, which is “an online literary publication dedicated to bringing the best writing in under 140 characters” — clearly inspired by Twitter. When I was working on my masters, Kent Haruf (who ended up being my thesis chair) liked to begin writing workshops by having us write complete stories in under 250 words, and that was a challenge. I’m not sure how one writes a complete story in 140 characters or less. I’ll have to keep an eye on the journal to see what writers come up with.

As far as  I know, my publisher, Punkin House Press, is still planning on releasing Men of Winter in October, but I haven’t seen a page proof or a cover design yet; perhaps soon.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter edits, more Solares and Morrison

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 15, 2010

I’ve had the good fortune to have my novel Men of Winter edited by Cheryl Hampton for Punkin House Press. Her close attention to detail and, as such, to nuance have been most reassuring — reassuring, that is, that Men of Winter is in good hands.  I have attempted to make the narrative voice sound translated, as if English is not the novel’s original language; hence many of the sentence patterns are deliberately oddball. I think it’s fair to say that it took Cheryl a few pages to get the rhythm of what I was up to, but once she did, her editing was spot on, often times suggesting changes that were improvements but still in the proper “oddball” voice.  One of the issues we discussed, via emails, was the use of compound words, like “snowcountry” and “streetpeople.” We’ve been in agreement to go with the compound words in the final version of the novel, as the unusual compounds contribute to the voice’s oddity. We agreed on one exception, however: “dining room” for “diningroom.”  For some reason, to my eye at least, the GROOM part of diningroom seems to stand out, and it’s an unnecessary distraction. Overall the edits have been minor and few, and the final version of the manuscript should be finished very soon.

I’ve been reading more of Solares’s Yankee Invasion, and I very much admire the way that the author moves back and forth in time in the narrative. The novel has a first-person reflective narrator who is at times writing about the time just prior to and during the United States’ invasion of Mexico City in 1847, and other chapters are much later as the narrator discusses with his wife about the memoir he is writing, and why he’s writing it, and what he’s leaving out, etc. There is much factual history in the novel woven in with the totally fabricated characters and events. In fact, the book begins with a timeline of Mexico’s history from 1838 to 1848, and it ends with a glossary of biographies of people mentioned in the novel, from John Quincy Adams to Francisco Zarco.  There are also several maps of Mexico and the United States from the time period. In the novel’s introduction, Carlos Fuentes (who’s been one of my favorite authors since I read his novel The Old Gringo about a million years ago) writes, “Written from the precarious vantage point of the future immediate to the novel, yet written by an author, Solares, contemporaneous to ourselves, Yankee Invasion holds a tacit invitation to see and be seen as subjects of history passing through the sieve of fiction” (xiii, 2009 Scarletta Press edition). I’m about 90 pages into the novel and am enjoying it very much. It’s an excellent example of what critic Brian McHale, in Postmodernist Fiction, calls a “zone,” a space created by the author where the “real” and the “unreal” (even the fantastic in this case) co-exist.

I’ve also been reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for my African-American authors class. I must say even though I’m an enormous fan of Morrison’s work, I’ve not been enjoying The Bluest Eye as much as I anticipated — perhaps because I’m ready to be in full summer mode and the novel is keeping me at least partially in the work-world. This is my last week to teach, though, as next Thursday is the last class session, which will be devoted to the students’ final projects.

In my creative life, besides working with Cheryl on the final publication draft of Men of Winter, I also finished retyping/revising my older novella Weeping with an Ancient God, and I’ve even been sending out the first chapter as a stand-alone piece, titled “Melvill in the Marquesas.” Plus I’ve been reading and editing the entire manuscript of the Authoress, my novel in progress, before continuing the drafting process. I’m nearly done with the 230 or so manuscript pages, and will be ready to write in earnest by the end of the week, I would think.

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Yankee Invasion and Writers Ask

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 6, 2010

I’m taking a bit of time away from Joyce (absence will no doubt make the heart grow even fonder) to read Ignacio Solares’s Yankee Invasion: A Novel of Mexico City (translated by Timothy G. Compton).  A few nights ago I had some time on my hands so I wandered into Barnes & Noble for some coffee and browsing.  Visiting bookstores for me has always been a bit like going to the zoo.  I love to walk around and admire the various species, take a moment every now and again to learn a little something about them — but, unlike a zoo, I can take a particularly intriguing specimen home. Several caught my eye, but it came down to Solares’s book and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume:  The Story of a Murder — which I’ve just learned has been adapted into a movie.  I’m about forty pages into Yankee Invasion.  So far it’s been about half the narrator’s personal musings and half the history of Mexico, especially in the nineteenth century, which is fine as it appeals to my attention surplus disorder. I’m going to have to switch reading gears again for a couple of days and read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I’m teaching in African-American authors class.  We just have three weeks to go, and I’ll spend two of those weeks on The Bluest Eye.  I’ve read several Morrison novels and have taught Beloved the previous times I’ve done this course.  I wanted to mix it up a bit, but I feel that Morrison, the last American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), ought to be covered in the class.

I’ve been typing up (and revising as I go) the manuscript for “Weeping with an Ancient God,” which is a highly fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s time among the cannibals of the Marquesas Islands in 1842.  It’s novella length and I hope to publish the whole thing eventually, but I’ll probably shop around the first chapter as a stand-alone piece (it’ll be a good side project for the summer while I continue to write “The Authoress”).  Not much progress on Men of Winter‘s publication.  I’ve had a couple of contacts with the graphic artist who’s working on the cover, and I’ve been told which editor’s been assigned to my book — but that’s about it so far.

I sent Glimmer Train Stories “Walkin’ the Dog” but had to withdraw the manuscript when it was accepted by Spilling Ink Review.  GTS‘s co-editor Linda Swanson-Davies (along with her sister Susan Burmeister-Brown) responded to my withdraw by inviting me to submit a piece for their Writers Ask or Bulletin publications, both of which examine the craft of writing and related issues.  The timing was perfect, and I happily spent a day writing a short article titled “Researching the Rhythms of Voice” and sent it off.  After a bit of back and forth regarding its length (I had to cut it down a couple of times, but that’s a good exercise in word husbandry), Linda accepted it for an upcoming issue of Writers Ask.  I was thrilled as I’m a huge fan of Glimmer Train Press — not to mention Linda and Susan, who have devoted their professional lives to promoting quality writing and nurturing writers, including me.

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More Ulysses and the monetary value of literature

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 31, 2010

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I was “#amreading” Ulysses and one of my former students, via Facebook, expressed surprise that I was still reading Ulysses.  I have stopped periodically to focus my reading on other texts — for example, because I’m teaching this African American literature class right now and I’ve revamped the syllabus since the previous go-around, I’ve spent some quality time on classic slave narratives, and last week I took a couple of days to read some Wallace Thurman — but I’m also a slow (and careful) reader, so Ulysses is the sort of text that takes time.  I’ve been chipping away at it since around Christmas, and I’m less than halfway through, working on the “Cyclops” section presently.  The student who made the comment is a good one, and an avid reader.  Still, though, I’ve noticed that young folks — the dwindling few who still read for pleasure — are disinclined to read classics.  I use “classic” here to mean a text that challenges them intellectually, even just a little.  As such, the idea of reading something like Ulysses (an extreme example I realize) becomes increasingly alien to the culture’s mindset.

Something else I wanted to touch on here:  the monetary value of literature (that is, serious contemporary literature).  I was doing some research on William H. Gass, specifically his meganovel The Tunnel, which appeared in, I think, nineteen excerpted installments between 1966 (when he began writing it) and 1995 (when it was published in whole).  I was at Brookens Library at University of Illinois, Springfield, and I was tracking down various excerpts that appeared in journals like The Iowa Reivew and TriQuarterly.  I was astonished to see that a journal like The Iowa Review cost virtually the same in the 1970s as it does now, about $9 for a single issue.  Had the cost of literary journals kept pace with inflation, that $9 journal in, say, 1975, would cost more than $35 today ($35.49 to be exact, according to The Inflation Calculator online).  Working in the other direction, something worth $9 in 2009 should have cost $2.08 in 1975.  Publishing literary journals has always been a for-loss proposition for the vast, vast majority of such journals; and that hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the relatively new phenomenon of  ejournals, as opposed to traditional print journals, as ejournals have very little overhead cost.

What this data suggests to me is that literature — again, serious contemporary literature — was of greater value to the public at large (or at least the journal-buying public at large) thirty years ago.  That is to say, people were willing to spend more of their discretionary income on a literary journal in 1975 than they are now.  Journal editors today have difficulty moving print product.  Imagine if they were charging more than $35 for a single issue.  Contemporary literature in the form of hardback books is approaching that price tag, but journals are still roughly $9 per issue.  I daresay it would be almost impossible to sell a literary journal for thirty-five bucks, which is the main reason that serious contemporary literature is rarely published in hardback today.  University and other small press publishers release novels and story and poetry collections in paperback, with a significantly smaller price tag than hardback, and even then it’s an uphill battle to get folks to buy them.

This statistic — that the relative value of serious contemporary literature is about a quarter of what it was in 1975 — seems to jibe with how the culture feels to those of us who are compelled to produce serious literature.  Once in a while I’ll have students ask me who my favorite writers are, and I’ll throw out names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Gass, and they’ll respond with a “never heard of him.”  I know.

Speaking of eliterature, the first issue of Spilling Ink Review is scheduled to appear this week (which includes my story “Walkin’ the Dog”).  Meanwhile, I’ve been typing my manuscript “Weeping with an Ancient God” — long, and not very interesting story, but I haven’t had an electronic version of the novella, so I’m typing the manuscript (and making revisions along the way).  I’ll also type up some older short stories for which I no longer have electronic copies (e.g., “Fische Stories” that appeared in Glimmer Train Stories).  I’d like to publish “Weeping” as a novella with collected stories.  And of course I continue to work on The Authoress.  In another week, The Authoress will move to the top of my priority list, and I’ll be able to write at a much faster pace — very much looking forward to that.

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Notes from the Louisville Conference 2010

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 21, 2010

I’ve just returned from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (LCLC)–ungainly title but terrific conference–and I wanted to share some of my finds and observations.  For any literature folks who haven’t been, it’s a top-flight international conference and well worth the effort.  It’s normally the last weekend in February and will be again in 2011.  I didn’t hear any concrete numbers, but it seemed attendance was down a bit (as universities are being hit by the economic crisis as well, and departments are having to pare back their travel allowances–in times of economic downturn, humanities and the fine arts tend to find themselves on the bureaucratic chopping block); nevertheless, the panels that I attended and participated in were up to their usual standards.  I chaired a panel on Joyce’s Ulysses on Thursday.  Even though it was not a prearranged panel, all three papers dealt with Molly Bloom, offering new assessments of her character in the novel.  Throughout the twentieth century, commentators tended to characterize her as a wanton woman, even a whore–but these papers were much more open-minded about her roles as wife, mother, woman.  I was especially intrigued by Elizabeth Kate Switaj‘s paper on “Ulysses as Lesbian Text” as the writer, a doctoral student at Queen’s University, Belfast, dealt with an approach to reading that identifies “space” for interpretation in a text that may not, at the surface level, seem to support such a reading.  One of the reasons I found this approach so attractively provocative is that my own pedagogical hobbyhorse in recent months has been to get my students to embrace ambiguity in their analyses of literature.  It seems that in the last couple of years especially my brightest students are “mathy” and “sciencey” types who want to reduce every work of literature to some sort of calculus equation that can be definitively “solved.”  I tell them that the humanities aren’t about simplifying everything down to its “correct” answer.  Humans are complex, and therefore ambiguous, creatures who often don’t understand their own behaviors and attitudes, leave be the behaviors and attitudes of others.  A sophisticated textual analysis doesn’t shy away from conflicting and conflicted conclusions–these sorts of conclusions are meaningful in their own right as long as they’re grounded in textual evidence.

I was also treated to some of Switaj’s poetry.  Speaking of creative panels, I especially liked the work of a young poet named Jeremy Allan Hawkins, who read from the thesis manuscript he’d submitted the previous day for his MFA from the University of Alabama.  I enjoyed the short story “Blue Sky White” by Tessa Mellas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.  Deborah Adelman’s (College of DuPage) cross-genre piece “Fleshing out the Bones” was very engaging, being part memoir, part fiction; as was Greenfield Jones’s (Louisville, Ky.) novel excerpt from Rêve Américain; and Adam Prince’s (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) “Ugly around Him” from his book-length manuscript.

I attended several thought-provoking critical panels, including one on the graphic novel–an area of literature that seems to share a lot with postmodernism, especially postmodern texts as trauma texts.  Graphic novels tend to be nonlinear and elliptical, thus putting the reader in the position of having to piece the narrative together in order for it to make sense.  Victims of trauma, by the same token, tend to communicate the source event in nonlinear, elliptical “texts” that must be reconstructed by a listener/reader.  Another paper (by April D. Fallon, Kentucky State University) has made me interested in e. e. cummings’s poetry in a way I hadn’t been previously.

My own presentations were well enough received.  I read my story “Communion with the Dead,” which was published in the fall 2008 issue of The Chariton Review.  I also presented it at the College English Association Conference in March 2008.  I enjoy reading it aloud, but it’s a bit tricky.  For one thing, at a couple of key places in the story I switch to unpunctuated stream of consciousness, and minus any visual cues for the audience, it may not make perfect sense (not to overuse the word, but it’s meant to be elliptical even when being read, as opposed to listened to); also, there are several Italian names that look interesting (and a bit exotic, I believe) on the page, but they can be challenging to read aloud fluidly.  I also presented my critical paper “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”  It, too, was well enough received.  I am attempting to turn it into a 30-page article for a European journal, and now that the Louisville Conference is over, I’ll be getting back to that project.  My physical working on “The Authoress” also came to a halt this week because of my traveling–physical working, I say, because I think about the novel all the time and I have some ideas about how it should end, though the ending is still a long way off.  Right now I’m working on a long central (I think) section that has been inspired, structurally at least, by Ulysses.  I hope to complete a draft of the novel this summer.  Meanwhile, an editor is interested in looking at my earlier written novella Weeping with an Ancient God for possible serial publication in her journal–which would be terrific, since trying to get a novella published is even more difficult than a first novel.

This morning I continued annotating Omensetter’s Luck.