Grand Ballroom, Hilton Chicago Hotel | February 14, 2009
Episode 7: Switching Hats: When Poets Write Memoir
(Nick Flynn, Carolyn Forche, Alison Granucci, Donald Hall, Honor Moore) These renowned writers traverse both in the genre of poetry and creative nonfiction. When poets write memoirs, with voices both similar and different to those in their poems, they go deeper into the narrative thread, remembering and telling, using the memoir as different mode of travel through the creative terrain. Please join us on a journey through faith and sexuality, race and addiction, and testimonies from war prisoners in this celebration of courage and versatility.
Published Date: September 17, 2009
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Chicago on February 14th, 2009. The event features Nick Flynn, Carolyn Forche, Alison Granucci, Donald Hall, and Honor Moore.
Hello everybody. Thank you for coming to this reading of Switching Hats When Poets Write Memoir. My name is Alison Granucci and I'm the president of Blue Flower Arts, a literary speakers' bureau, and we represent poets and novelists and memoirs for their readings. And it's been a great honor to be a literary partner this year for this AWP Conference. And today I am honored and delighted to bring you an ensemble of Blue Flower Arts clients. Some of the great voices in contemporary poetry, poets who also write extraordinary prose. We have Nick Flynn, Carolyn Forche, Donald Hall, and Honor Moore.
Switching Hats When Poets Write Memoir. These four renowned writers traverse both in the genre of poetry and creative nonfiction. When poets write memoirs with voices both similar and different to those in their poems, they go deeper into the narrative thread, past and present. Remembering and telling using memoir as a different mode of travel through the terrain of words and language. And it's my great honor to welcome these four amazing writers. Please give them a warm welcome. We'll start with Nick Flynn.
Nick Flynn's poetry and prose exquisitely explores the tenuous membrane that separates comfortable everyday existence from the desperate margins of society. He's known for his award-winning memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. And today he'll be reading from The Ticking is the Bomb, A Memoir of bewilderment, which will be coming out later this year. Inspired in part by the Abu Ghraib detainees, several of whom he met. Nick Flynn writes a painfully beautiful memoir of torture.
When asked, he writes, "I'll sometimes say I'm writing about torture, but I found that when I say the word torture, many go glassy-eyed as if I had just dropped a stone into a deep, deep well. When I asked, I'll sometimes say I'm writing about the way photographs are a type of dream, or I'll say that I'm writing a memoir of bewilderment and leave it at that. But what I mean is the bewilderment of what it is to wake up in an America that has legalized torture.
What I don't say what I should say is that what I'm really writing about is Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold onto him. Who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you. As you ask him your question, your one simple question. The question is often simply a variation of how do I get home?"
Thanks for coming to Versailles. And I really am honored, deeply honored to be reading with these other writers who I've been reading since I was in short pants. As Alison said, this is from a memoir called The Ticking is the Bomb, and you heard a little bit what it's about. There'll be a moment where we end up in Istanbul with one of the ex-Abu Ghraib detainees who I call Amir, and he's the man that was being dragged in a leash by Lynndie England. And so I'm just going to read into that.
So I just want to tell you that upfront so we don't have to stop. "Monkey mind. Some Buddhists believe that as you wander through the bardo, that realm between living and dying, you'll encounter the physical manifestations of that which terrifies you. Over and over, they will appear before you. This is your karmic debt and only those who are enlightened will walk unafraid. Some believe that enlightenment often comes at the moment of death just as it can often come at the moment of birth.
Most of us though spend our given time, our handful of hours, our teaspoonful of years hovering between these two poles, muddying the water. Monkey mind, some call it. Samsara. All I have is a photograph. Here's a photograph of my mother walking away from a white house carrying an open can of Schlitz, wearing a blonde wig and oversized sunglasses like Anjelica Huston in the Grifters. The man next to her is also carrying an open can of Schlitz. We can only see a sliver of him but it's enough to recognize him as her brother, my uncle.
A toddler is hidden behind this uncle. Half his face visible, which is more than enough to recognize him as my brother. My mother's wig, a sliver of an uncle, half a brother. So this is my family, but then who else would these people be. After all, I found this photograph in a box of my mother's things. The sweater my brother wears, a white V-neck with red and blue trim around the collar and sleeves is the same sweater I had as a child given to us by our grandfather who was rich, who had money, who paid for our tennis lessons.
Though at home we had blocks of government cheese and a silver can with the words peanut butter stenciled on the side. We ate the cheese but we never opened the can, saving it for the darker days to come. In the photograph, they're in my grandfather's yard on first cliff, the big house we called it. As I write this, I realize for the first time that big house is another way of saying prison. And they're walking away toward the ocean. A tiny foot nearly unnoticed dangles from someone else's arms, someone outside the picture. This could be my foot.
I could be in the other uncle's arms or I could be in the arms of my mother's boyfriend at the time, though I don't know which boyfriend it would be. My foot is so small, it is even possible I'm in my father's arms, but he's the last one I imagine. Last night I had a dream. I'm on a phone, but the phone is broken. It is simply an earpiece, a black disc, wire sprouting from it breaking up in my hands. I have to move it between my ear and my mouth to listen and talk. I am talking to my mother. We are making a plan for me to come to dinner. 'What can I bring?'
I ask her, 'Salad, dessert?' 'Bring food,' she says, 'We need food.' And then there's my father and the stories he tells. A whole book could be written about my father or so he thinks. The two are nearly inseparable by now. The same handful over and over his repertoire. A liar always tells his story the same way except most of my father's stories have and probably turned out to be true. The story of robbing a few banks. The story of the novel he spent his whole life writing. The story of his father inventing the life raft.
All true. I first heard these stories or pieces of them those five years he was living in the streets. I was working in the shelter where he'd sometimes spend his nights and we'd sometimes talk, but he was, is a grandiose drunk, and so I was not inclined to believe much of what he said. In one of his stories, he claimed to be a direct descendant of the Romanovs, of the missing Tsarina. In popularity, this delusion is just behind believing oneself to be Jesus or Satan.
One of my father's stories, one I found too bizarre to engage with it at all was of his being locked up in federal prison for two years, which is true. But while there, he claims to have been tortured, experimented on, sleep-deprived, drugged, sexually humiliated. And I don't know if this is true or not. Understand it is hard and getting harder to get a straight answer from my father as his alcoholism slips into its twilight stages. When I ask him about his prison time now, he looks wildly around the room or park or coffee shop and answers and whispers, 'I can't talk about that here.'.
My Teufelsberg. This morning in my inbox, I find this note from a friend in Berlin. I was standing on the Teufelsberg, the Devil's Mountain with a friend last night listening to Patty Smith playing in the stadium below. And I thought of you, the Teufelsberg is made from all the junk of the war, the broken houses and so on. It is a big mountain and we stood there looking out over my strange and terrible and beautiful city. Where are you? Teufelsberg, Devil's Mountain, all the junk of the war. Here I am, I think, samsara, writing about my mother again. And here I am, samsara, writing about my father again, building my own devil's mountain, piling up all the junk of the war.
If asked, I'll sometimes say that I'm writing about torture, but I found that if I say the word torture, many go glassy-eyed, silent is if I just dropped a stone into a deep, deep well. Sometimes I say I'm writing about my unborn daughter, about my impending fatherhood. Five months ago, the clock ticking, but I don't want to jinx it. I don't want to name it. Not yet. Some people tell me that once the baby comes, I'll feel a new love, a love like I have never felt before. Hearing this, I smile and nod, but it always makes me uneasy. What if I don't feel this love?
What if it doesn't happen to me? I'm sure it doesn't, can't happen to everyone and that the ones who don't feel it simply don't talk about it. What if I turn out to be one of them? What if I feel it one day and then don't feel it the next? What if it's fleeting? Two dogs. 'Two dogs live inside me,' a woman in Texas tells me. 'And the one I feed is the one that will grow.' She tells me this as a way to explain why she won't have coffee with me, ever. Married, kids, happy, but sometimes her mind wanders. Sometimes she thinks that another man, one that looks at her with kindness, one that seems to listen is the answer though she's unsure of the question.
The thing is, her husband does all these things for her. He listens. He's kind. There's desire. Everything's fine. But still, these two hungry dogs. Wait, this woman didn't say her dogs were hungry, did she? But aren't all dogs hungry? Hear shadow, hear eros, hear thanatos, hear light. The one she feeds is the one that will grow. But does that mean that the other one will grow smaller? Will it grow so small as to vanish? Do the dogs that live inside her come from some Alice in Wonderland world? Are they fighting inside her? Does she love them both? Does she sometimes think that if one died it would be easier, but then she'll have one dog inside her and the corpse of another dog?
What good will that do in the long run? What with all the other corpses we eventually end up dragging around inside us? And this is Istanbul. There's a moment in a mere story when words are not enough as there will be in every story. A moment where the only way to tell us what happened is to show us what they did to his body. At this moment, he pushes back from the table and stands. 'They hang me this way,' he says, and raises his arms out to his side as if crucified in the air. There's something about him standing, about his body suddenly rising up that completely unhinges me. Something about it that makes his words real in a way they hadn't been before.
At this moment, I get it. These words are about his body. It was his body, this story happened to. The body that is right here beside me in this room I could barely even imagine just yesterday. His body that is now filling the air above our heads. Our eyes upturned to see him. Amir stands there like that, arms outstretched. The scribe has nothing to write. The painter has nothing to paint. The interpreter has nothing to interpret. The lawyer's eyes are fixed on his eyes. All his words have led to this moment when his body is finally allowed to speak. The lawyer shakes her head slightly.
'And what happened next?' She says softly and he lowers his arms and sits. In Istanbul while collecting testimonies, we asked each ex-detainee to describe the room where his torture took place. Each man looked around him. 'It looked like this room,' each responded. 'There was a table, there was a computer. Someone was always behind me.' What did the person who tortured you look like, was the next question And the detainee would look at me then look at the artist, the only two white men in the room and either point to him or point to me. 'He looked like him,' was the answer. In some ways we were mere shadows to them.
One evening over dinner in an outdoor restaurant, Amir asked if I was married, if I had children. I've been asked this question for years whenever I travel and I've been looked at with something like pity when I've answered no. My first child will be born in January I told Amir, a girl. He narrowed his eyes and smiled as if I had just come into focus." I'm going to read a poem to finish. It's called Fire. Fire. "More the idea of the flame than the flame as in the flame of the rose petal. The flame of the thorn. The sun is a flame. The dog's teeth, flames. To be clear with the body captain, we can do as we wish.
We can do as we wish with the body, but we cannot leave marks. Captain, I'm trying to get this right. The world so small, the sky so high. We pray for rain, it rains. We pray for sun, it's suns. We pray on our knees. We move our lips. We pray in our minds. We clasp our hands. Our hands look tied before us. I remember captain something, it didn't happen not to me. This guy, I knew him by face. I don't remember his name. One night walking home from a party, a car. It clipped him. For hours he wandered, dazed. His family, his neighbors, with flashlights, they searched all night. The woods calling out.
Here's the part captain where I tell a story as if it were a confession. In elementary school once, I was hiding out on Damon Rock, lighting matches and letting them drop to the leaves below little flareups, flash fires. A girl wandered down the path. She just stood there watching the matches fall from my hand. Captain, I'm trying to be precise. Hot day. A cage in the sun, a room without air, the mind-bending heat, the music of flame. Hey Metallica. Hey Britney. Hey Airless. Hey Fuse. I don't know how it happened. I was perched far above. I offered her a match to pull down her pants.
One match, her hairless body. Hey little girl. I dropped it unlit. I didn't know what it was I was looking at. Hey Captain, I don't know if I'm allowed. Hey, captain, years ago I'm walking one drunk night. Even now I wonder. Sometimes still I imagine, was I hit? Am I dazed? This dream, this confession. Hey little girl, is your daddy home? Hey Captain. Hey sir. Am I making any sense? The boy stood on the burning deck. Stammering. Elocution. Wait, the boy stood in the burning cage. Stammering. Electrocution.
No, the boys stood in the hot, hot room. Stammering. I did. Stammering. I did. Stammering. I did. Stammering. I did. Stammering. Everything you say I did. I did. Hey, Metallica. Hey Britney. Hey Airless. Hey Fuse. Hey phonograph. Hey Hades. Hey thoughtless. Hey Captain, this room is on fire. Captain, this body will not stop burning. Captain, oh my captain, this burning has become a body. Captain, oh, my captain, this child is ash. Captain, oh, my captain, my hands pass right through her captain. Oh, my captain, I don't know what it is I'm looking at." Thanks.
While Carolyn Forche is a poet most strongly identified with social conscience, political activism, and the poetry of witness, her work is also deeply spiritual, mystical, and filled with praise for human existence praise which stems from also knowing the other darkest side of humanity's abuses and violence. She was powerfully influenced by the time she spent in El Salvador as a human rights activist and later her work in Lebanon in South Africa. She is currently at work on a memoir titled The Horse on Our Balcony.
It is in part a conversation between herself and her former student, the poet Ilya Kaminsky. At whose prompting she writes the story of her years in El Salvador, Lebanon, South Africa and France with forays into childhood and her present life. And that is the work we'll be hearing her read from today.
It's an honor to read among my colleagues and to be in the presence of so many people dedicated to the word. It's quite a humbling experience to be here and I wonder how many other national gatherings there are where one can encounter people from everywhere in one's life. People with whom we went to school, whom we taught. It's really very unique maybe, this. I'm going to begin with the poem and it's analogy for a friend of mine who died in 2004. His name was Daniel Simko, a poet unknown in his lifetime, but his first book will be published by Four Way this year.
It's called The Lost Suitcase. "So it was with the suitcase left in front of the hotel, cinched, broken locked, papered with world ports, carrying what mattered until then. When turning your back to cup a match, it was taken. And the thief expecting valuables instead found books written between wars, gold, attic light, mechanical birds singing and the chronicle of your country's final hours. What by means of notes, you hoped to become a noun on paper. Paper dark with nouns, swallows darting through a basilica, your hands up in smoke, a cloud about to open over the city.
Pillows breathing shallowly where you had laid a ghost in a hospital gown and here your voice principled, tender, softening through a fence woven with pine bows. Writing is older than glass, but younger than music. Older than clocks or porcelain, but younger than rope. Dear one, who even in speaking is silent. For years I have searched usually while asleep. When I have found the suitcase open, collecting snow, still holding your [foreign language 00:21:27] of the infinite. Your dictionary of the no longer spoken, a commonplace of wounds casually inflicted and the slender ledger of truly heroic acts. Gone is your atlas of countries unmarked by war.
Absent your manual for the preservation of ours. The [inaudible 00:21:54] is lost. Both your earliest book and a hatching place for your mechanical birds, but the collection of [inaudible 00:22:02] having to do with light laying its eggs in your eyes was found. Along with the prophecy that all mass murders were early omens. In the antique bookshop, I found your catechism of atrophied faiths. So I lay you to rest without your salter nor the monograph where in you state your most unequivocal and hard won proposition that everything must happen, but to whom doesn't matter. Here are your books as if they were burning.
Be near now and wake to tell me who you were." This is an introduction which will, I hope, explain something about what I hope The Horse on Our Balcony will become. It isn't yet published. I'm the panelist who hasn't published nonfiction yet, so I'm up here in a different capacity. "There are moments that call out to be written. Moments that are outside time. Yet remain as dwellings within us. We may enter or depart from as we wish or as our souls compel us. They are an other aware for the mind. A swelling of the present that becomes a nova in memory.
In my childhood, I experienced such moments in holy terror. Torrance of sound. Objects growing small then large again. A humming from within as the faces in the wood grain of the closet doors became momently sepia images of strange but familiar beings. But I outgrew this as they say, or rather was overcome less and less frequently until one day I realized that infinite as they once seemed, these swellings of time were no longer being visited upon me. Wood grain now remains wood grain and such things as tables and bedsteads no longer shrink and grow large again.
But I still enter these temporal dwellings most often during reverie or writing. And I have found also that in the aftermath of certain physical journeys, moments lived en route remain visible in the darkness of forgotten experience still and shining in that dark. My journey with Daniel to then Czechoslovakia and the two Germanys in the spring of 1990 as the Berlin Wall was coming down, had been strung with such moments. So had my winter in Beirut with my husband Harry. And later our winter and spring in South Africa just before our son was born.
Paris, where he was born and where we lived during his first year was also lit by openings in time. And when Sean was three years old, the surprised itself for a little while. Is that fair to say? The Soviet empire collapsed. [foreign language 00:25:27] was carried on the shoulders of his countrymen to the castle in Prague and became the first president of the New Republic. Berlin's tore down the wall, oh, but a kilometer or so that has now become an open air museum and so on, as Daniel would say. But even he was amazed to have lived to see this.
Moments in these journeys, these and others, earlier in El Salvador and Guatemala and in Northern Ireland became. Together with those in Beirut and South Africa, a constellation that seemed at once to light the very night of my imagination and to remind me of the dark matter. Invisible, impenetrable perhaps that makes up most of what we know." So this is a little excerpt and there are three poets in the excerpt. One is Daniel Simko, the other is my interlocutor, Ilya Kaminski and also Joseph Brodsky.
"From the train station window, I could see through the sunlit birches that grew very near the tracks that there was still snow and thin ice around the trunks of furs. We were waiting for the late train, so the tracks were silent and another silence gleaned along them. The arms of the railway crossing were raised and the platform was empty. I went outside despite the cold to sit on the bench and read Joseph's advice, the advice he took himself and that which he gave to others. If you cast over a poem, a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.
Here are my nouns, hand, cemetery, ash, soul, library, stone, bell wall. There are words Ilya that [foreign language 00:27:35] called [foreign language 00:27:38] shells of speech. He said by listening to certain words, as a child listens to the sea in a seashell, a word dreamer hears the murmur of a world of dreams. This is the first time I have taken this train since before Daniel died. The last time I took it, I was traveling to see him without knowing it was the last time. Here was fate. The train stopped during the trip somewhere along the river and was stalled for such a long time that I knew I wouldn't make it to the event in New York I was to attend that evening.
I wouldn't be there in time to introduce a prize-winning poet at an award ceremony. And therefore, as it turned out, I had several hours with Daniel that I wouldn't otherwise have had. Aside from his restlessness and the pain in his blackened ecdemic legs and feet, those hours were very like our visits during the preceding 20 years. I looked down at Joseph's language and when I looked up again, we were crossing a broken river in a wild snow. The ice had caved along the banks and resembled shards of broken windows covered with lye.
It was a river of gray light, water for Joseph was collected time. Time interested him most. When we pulled into the station at Schenectady, the world was a toy snow globe that had been shaken. The city was no longer visible, a beauty not possible in clear light. The stone banks, the car lots, the highway underpass, John's pub, little black windowed houses perched close to the tracks, rattled, boned and abandoned. He arrived in Vienna, Joseph, with only his typewriter, his John Dunn, two liquor bottles and a change of clothes. We are crossing another river over an iron railroad bridge.
It is like St. Petersburg last March, Ilya. An eye of light blinking in the ice. This is another station. Joseph is now speaking about his arbitrary God, not a God meeting justice unfairly but rather randomly. Everything must happen to whom does not matter. In speaking of the decaying beauty of Venice, he said it's not going to be repeated ever as nothing is. It is the most difficult thought to bear to hold in one's thought with a deep but ungrasping appreciation. That the dead are not coming back and the fallen cities of another time will not rise and no moment will recur. I finally realize, Ilya, how alone I am in this.
It isn't a matter of living in one place and working in another. We are traveling beside a frozen river and snow is lifted from its surface by the wind so that it seems the river is issuing white smoke and the snow is an ash purer than human remains because I have now held and seen human remains. I'm alone in this because no one can write it for me. No one can choose from the puzzle pieces which one should be assembled into the hole. And here is where the river breaks up. One slab of ice submerged, another swirling downstream. Nothing but ink will save Daniel from oblivion.
Adrian's [inaudible 00:31:19] love cannot, nor can mine. The last white roses I brought to him were beautiful for days, he said. When I closed the door, I didn't know you see that it would be for the last time. But it was the first time he hadn't felt well enough to walk with me down to the street. Further south, the river has loosened itself and the ice remaining near the banks resembles courts. We're at another station, stopping. Here there is a steeple rising out of the woods, the radiance of chiseled ice, blue tarps over summer boats.
It will be spring soon. That Daniel will not be standing at the top of the stairs in Penn Station seems unimaginable to me. Of course, he will be there in his overcoat and pressed trousers carrying an umbrella on cloudy days. He will have a wool scarf draped around his shoulders. He will smile when he sees me and take my bag and I will feel unburdened and safe. When we reach his apartment door, he will open his complicated lock with its many keys in there on the low coffee table near the window. There will be a vase of roses and beside it, a bowl of fruit and a stack of what he had been reading.
He doesn't speak about these books but stacks them as if he were building a staircase into his recent cast of mind. It won't be possible not to search for his face in the crowded station. For one figure standing perfectly still among so many hurrying others, not possible and of course futile. And in that futility, the grief of a search without end for a revenant in an overcoat. We are 40 miles from the dark tunnels beneath the city, but still along the water now completely thawed and wind shuffled, tufted with white caps, blue cliffs on the other side, wet black, river smooth rock, a map of clouds above us.
This time I will stay in another part of the city. I won't walk his streets. I won't go near the places we went. I will assemble a new city for my solitude, not the city of Daniel. It is almost the tunnel."
And when asked at a Library of Congress dinner, the subject of his writing, Donald Hall replied, "Love, death and to New Hampshire." Today he'll be reading from his new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes, The Life of a Poet, which was released last year. This invaluable record of the making of a poet begins with Hall's childhood in depression era suburban Connecticut where he first realized poetry was secret, dangerous, wicked, and delicious. And ends with what he calls the planet of antiquity.
A time of life dramatically punctuated by his appointment as poet laureate of the United States. He writes eloquently of the poetry and books that moved and formed him as a child and young man. He takes us through his time at Harvard where he began lifelong friendships with Robert Bly, Adrian Rich and George Plimpton. Now in his eighties, Hall is as painstakingly honest about his failures as he is about his successes making Unpacking the Boxes both revelatory and tremendously poignant.
I'm ready to start by reading a brief poem, not rather recent, which means that probably a year from now it will be unrecognizable, but I want to read it to you. It includes very early life and very late life. It's called Pieces. "Now I am 80 years old and sit in my chair watching unpainted boards of the barn turn gold. When late autumn's sun rubs against them. The same barn I walked to as a boy, to sit on a three-legged stool beside my grandfather. While he milked the seven Holsteins and spoke pieces he'd learned for school. Lawyer blew, the bearded hen an orphan lad from Boston.
He recited a version of Casey at the Bat, where Casey hits a home run because my grandfather couldn't bear to say that Casey had struck up. If he saw me now, he would need to turn away." Unpacking the boxes has virtually nothing in it about my summers at the farm. My first book was about that and I've written about it elsewhere. What I write about childhood and in between and old age. In my childhood, nothing happened. Some stories of childhood or tales had grown up repeated. I must've been three when I pulled the carrot and my mother told everyone what Donny did.
She kept a vegetable garden at the bottom of the backyard and every night before supper, she took me with her to pull a fresh carrot for my supper. One evening I walked into the kitchen a little early, holding my carrot of exemplary intelligence. Memory is stronger when it recalls transgression. I played with a neighbor boy while a repairman worked on the kitchen refrigerator, which had a white coil at top. The repair man's dented bottle tea cut down to a pickup, stood beside the kitchen door on two narrow strips of breaking apart concrete.
My playmate and I lifted chunks of cement onto the pickup's bed. My mother peeking out the screen door, issued a reprimand and my friend and I set to undo the crime. I stood in the truck bed lifting chunks down to my accomplice, who wore an Indian headdress. I stood above the boy looking down on his head, surrounded by feathers and carefully dropped a large lump of concrete onto his skull. Oh, the bliss of targeting a head circled by feathers. He howled and ran home. I was sent to my room. Nothing happened.
I was small when I wandered a block or two up auger street and sideways into one of the short blocks that paralleled [inaudible 00:38:33]. With no notion of how to get home, desolation. A tender delivery man in a red truck returned me to my distraught mother. When I was four, I saw my first nude female body. The three-year-old daughter of friends of my parents who also lived on [inaudible 00:38:54] came dashing naked out of her house as I walked up the street. I remember my wicked joy as I watched a flustered grandmother run from the house and grab Molly back into privacy. License and rapture began with this vision.
My father's parents lived nearby. After a blizzard, my grandfather, Henry Hall, who loves horses, had his picture in the New Haven Register because he saddled up and delivered raw whole milk to customers with babies. He kept a saddle horse with the milk truck workhorses in the dairies' long stable. Yet Henry and Augusta were frightening figures to me because they were frightening to my parents. Their house was always dark. It felt like held breath." The paragraph continues, but I want to stop with my favorite image. This is known as searching for page numbers.
"What did I do all day before I went to school? My mother read aloud. I remember pain and little black Sambo. I remember Rachel Lindsay's The Moon's the North Wind's Cooky. From silver pennies, an anthology of poems. I listened to the radio. I played with neighborhood children or by myself in my room in the backyard. I overheard grownups talking. Sometimes on weekend nights my parents invited other couples for drinks and bridge. I lay in my bed hearing the teasing and laughing voices, which grew louder as evening progressed. Every word, every tone, every laugh sounded purposeful as if having fun was something undertaken on purpose.
But mostly the family evenings were silent. As my parents read books and magazines. I daydreamed. I wondered what the school would be like. In my fancy, it was purple and gold, luminous and untouchable. I imagine that one had to be clean, one had to be good. One was offered exquisite toys like a small stage coat, purple and gold within jewels too precious and too fragile to touch. My fantasy enriched the schoolroom with dreadful grandeur, soaring, dark, and awful as a cathedral. My imagination of school was identical to my imagination of heaven."
Just one last paragraph, which begins the last chapter, which is called The Planet of Antiquity. "The new marries the old in the sparse air of antiquities planet. When you were three years old and your socks are falling down, somebody says, 'Pull up your socks, Donny.' Then you are 12, solitary, reading books all day. Then 25 and a new father burping your son at 2:00 AM. When you turn 40, divorced, your life is a passage among disasters. Then you marry again, you are happy, you turn 60, your wife dies. Then you are 80 and your socks fall down again. No one tells you to pull them up.
And Honor Moore is the author of the memoir, The Bishop's Daughter. A memoir about her relationship with her father, Bishop Moore of New York City. Sylvia Naser wrote, "The Bishop's Daughter is an unsparing portrait of a glamorous but elusive father and his daughter's search for the truth about his secret life and conflicted loyalties. Paul Moore's vocation as an Episcopal priest took him into prominence as an activist bishop in Washington during the Johnson years through the civil rights and peace movements and two decades of the Bishop of New York.
Honor Moore chronicles her turbulent relationship with her father who struggled privately with his sexuality while she openly explored hers, giving us a searching account of the consequences of sexual secrets. The Bishop's Daughter is a memoir that engages us in the great issues of American life, war, race, family, sexuality, and faith."
It's a great pleasure and not meaning to pun a great honor to be here. I'm going to start with a short poem, which I found among papers in the wake of writing The Bishop's Daughter and finally putting things away. Story, "A big train is coming for the little boy who is an old man and I am holding his hand. 'When is it coming?' 'I can't tell you little boy. But look, and you'll see it.' A great black shiny train. Steam rushing from it. My father sits in his chair in the cold, dark parlor. 'Oh, tell me,' he asks, 'What time is the train and what should I do?' 'Oh dear one, I don't know. Look out the window.
There's a moon on the snow. When the train comes, you'll see the light. I'm not coming with you, but I'll hold you tight.'" And I am going to read from the prologue to The Bishop's Daughter. "It is Easter and in the darkness of the cathedral of St. John the Divine, the singing soars and desk camp, the gothic ceiling multiplying the clamor. And now as if a great storm has ceased, there is no music. And in the silence held by 5,000 worshipers, there come three resounding knocks. And as we wait, the massive doors swing open. And ethereal shaft of sunlight floods the dark. The roar of the city breaks the gigantic quiet.
And there, at the far end of the aisle, in a blaze of morning light, stands the tall figure of a man. My flesh and blood father, the bishop. In the weeks before my father's death, the weather in New York was crystalline. It was April and the leaves were coming in. There were a couple of days when we thought we could actually see the tiny, pale, green nobbles growing. As we sat on the stoop, watching people go by. Imagining who they were and what they did. We were my father and whatever other brother or sister was keeping watch.
Now that the diagnosis was terminal. Mornings I walked my dog, returned telephone calls and read student papers. The afternoons I was in charge of my father. I hurried downtown to his house on Bank Street. When he woke up, I might sit with him near the window in the front of his living room and help him go through his mail, tossing empty envelopes toward the waste-basket, which was inexplicably several feet away. It was like a childhood game. And when I missed, that old, competitive glint came into my father's eye. But now when he aimed and threw, he missed too.
And as I bent to rescue the torn envelope or crumpled letter, we'd both collapse into giggles. Some letters of course he wanted to answer. I'd make a call regretting an invitation or take a bit of dictation or I might say, 'You don't need to answer this.' And he'd look up in utter astonishment and I'd say, 'Do you really want to spend what might be your last months answering mail?' And then we'd both laugh knowing there was no might about it and that it would not be months at all. But what he asked more than once, looking at me as if I knew every answer to every question, 'What pop?', I said, 'What's going to happen?'
His eyes were very wide. 'What do you think is going to happen?' I would say, and I'd watch him think. 'I think I'll just go to sleep,' he'd say, relieved. As April went on, he was less often awake when I got there. And so after I checked in, I might wander around the village to buy flowers for the house, have a cappuccino, just get out. Afternoons were quiet on those intimate streets, and as I walked, I could feel my father's love for his life on Bank Street, he had been a fixture here for years, a giant of a man with white hair, tilting from side to side. He had a hip problem. Often walking Percy, his tiny Yorkshire terrier.
There was a cafe on the corner and directly across the street, a one-story shop with tall windows and what looked from the outside like a vaulted ceiling. It must once have been a stable, I thought. Eventually I learned it had originally been a brothel. Now it housed a hairdresser who seemed always to have the most beautiful and exotic flowers in the room where he cut and styled hair. My hair had gotten too long. There had been no time at all to have it cut, and now the weather was warm. I'd have my hair done in the room with the flowers I imagined.
One afternoon I went into the shop, 'Can you wash and blow dry my hair?' The hairdresser looked at his schedule. 'My father is dying,' I said absurdly, 'Can you wash my hair?' 'Is your father Bishop Moore?' As he washed my hair later that day, he told me that his partner, the man sitting in the front room talking with the friend, the man in charge of the flower design company responsible for the amazing flowers, was a friend of my father's and had recently stopped him on the street to ask him to have supper.
'I'm dying you know,' my father apparently said. When we got out into the front room, the hairdresser said to his partner, 'This is Paul Moore's daughter.' 'Oh, I know Paul,' the partner said. The hairdresser said, 'You saw him the other day. What was it he said?' 'I'd rather keep it to myself,' the partner said abruptly. I looked at the man's face, it was long and narrow and showed his years. He must have been about my age. What was my father's relationship to this man, I wondered. Did my father often have supper with his gay neighbors? When these men said, 'Oh, I know Paul.' How did they know him?
For more than 10 years, I had known that my father had had secret male lovers all his life. But in spite of that revelation inside our immediate family, the details of his actual gay life remained hidden. My father's bisexuality had become part of the way I thought about him, but it was not something we talked about. And that silence contributed to the pain and awkwardness of our life together. Now, in the weeks before my father's death, I had encountered a gay man who seemed to know things about my father's life that I did not.
Had this man who arranged flowers, loved my father's long body? Longed for his extraordinary smile, listened to his sufferings? Would he ever talk to me about what my father was like as a gay man? Would I want him to? If my father's privacy was his privilege, what of his life was I, his daughter, entitled to know? 'I used to do Brenda's hair,' the hairdresser said, breaking into my reverie. 'Brenda was my late stepmother and he,' he said, pointing to his partner, the florist, 'He used to do their flowers.' The last summer of his life, I visited my father in Stonington, Connecticut.
The first morning was gloriously clear, and after we packed a picnic, we headed out. My father piloting me in his Boston whaler across the Stonington harbor to a sandspit where we anchored in transparent shallows and wandered to a deserted beach. There we sat, he wearing the striped gondolier shirt I brought him as a present. Talking comfortably, looking out at the ocean, swimming, sunning. I asked if he remembered the time when I was tiny and we were at the beach at the foot of his grandmother's lawn in Massachusetts. We were swimming together and he walked ahead of me out of the surf and I was tossed and pulled under by a wave and rescued by a stranger.
When I told him this story, my father apologized. He was always apologizing for things he'd done or not done in my childhood, as if by apologizing he might finally correct the brokenness of the past. For years I had believed the past couldn't be mended, but that morning on the beach, I felt we had finally come to some semblance of the relationship my father always said he wanted. A closeness I now understand I also longed for. In the past after visiting him, it would take weeks to recover my balance. The chasm of silence between us seemed impossibly wide.
I would manage to be courteous, but I was also distant. I was still in the process of identifying my wounds and I wanted to avoid the rage that seemed always to descend if we differed. But this time, he had made such an effort. A dinner party, a trip to my stepmother's grave that I could not help but be moved. Before I left I said, stiffly, how much I'd enjoyed our time together. And he looked at me, tears in his eyes, fighting emotion and said, 'I hope we'll see more of each other. It means a great deal to me.' I watch myself then.
A woman in her fifties, in that small sunny room with her father in his eighties. There was so much unsaid between us. Would he ever talk to me about his love for the women he had married? Of the nature of his love for men? Would I ever be able to make clear to him that it was safe to talk openly with me? That I wanted to talk about what had pulled us apart and also the complicated experiences of love that might bring us together? Of course I embraced him, and of course I gave him a kiss goodbye but I couldn't surrender myself. In the weeks before my father died, that restraint began to dissolve.
At first, it took the form of empathy, sadness that he'd never returned to the Adirondacks where he'd gone every summer of his life except one during the war, or that he'd never celebrate mass or preach again. As he got sicker, I spent more and more time at Bank Street, almost running from the subway station to the house. I didn't question this new urgency, I reveled in it. The longing seemed physical and its satisfaction came in just being in my father's presence. Taking in his weight, the shape of his head, his posture.
And now I was losing him. As I wrote in a journal each night, I could conjure him almost, it seemed. Bring back the years of our life together, images and dreams unfolding as I remembered. One day, about two weeks after he died, I started this book. My father always wanted me to write about him, I wrote. And suddenly he came into view, enormously tall in silhouette on Easter morning in the cathedral doorway. I had turned away from my father, but he had never turned entirely away from me. And now as the past opened, I was turning back to him.
Thank you again to Nick Flynn, Carolyn Forche, Donald Hall, and Honor Moore. Was beautiful.
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