Thursday, July 16, 2020

Marion Wallace (May 30, 1935 - July 15, 2020)

Goodbye, Mom. I love you. That’s what I always said to her in later years when I left where my parents were living or hung up the phone after a call.

I wanted to let people know who didn’t already that my mother passed away peacefully this week due to a variety of health complications connected mostly to her longtime respiratory difficulties (not related to COVID-19). She was living at Sunrise of Sabre Springs in Poway, California, the assisted living facility where she and my father moved in the summer of 2018 to be in the San Diego area nearer to me and other family. My father was with her at the end and she received helpful care from many at the facility and also from my wonderful aunt, Joan Comer, my father’s sister, who lives at Sunrise also. With careful precautions I was able to visit her for one long afternoon in her final week, and my brother and I spoke to her every day on the phone. We told her how much we loved her.

Born Marion Allen in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she was the daughter of an engineer who worked for General Electric. Because of his job they moved a great deal and she lived in a number of places, most notably Cincinnati, Ohio and Richland, Washington. Her parents later lived in other places including Oklahoma City, Springfield, Massachusetts and the New Jersey Eastern Shore.

She met my father at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, a Christian college associated with the Presbyterian Church. They were married in 1957, a marriage that lasted for 63 years in which they both remained devoted to each other. She and my father soon moved to Princeton New Jersey when he enrolled in seminary school there and, later, in graduate school as a historian of religious history. In Princeton and nearby, my mother worked as a 3rd grade school teacher and in various offices while my father completed his education

When I was a year old my parents moved to Washington, D.C. when my father became a university professor at The George Washington University, where he worked for 50 years. My mother eventually stopped working outside the home and devoted many hours of labor to the care of me and my younger brother Paul. Within a few years my parents had moved to a house in Kensington, Maryland, about seven miles north of D.C.

My mother loved listening to music and playing the piano and for awhile invited other women in the neighborhood who also loved music to play music with her at our house. We had a baby grand piano in the living room that she played for many years.

Unfortunately, the second half of my mother’s life was affected by a series of ailments, especially respiratory ones, that often left her in struggling health and could make it difficult for her to be outside. In her final years she suffered from significant memory loss although even in her last days she still remembered many people from the earlier parts of her life.

She always took a keen interest in the life of the world around her, although she ventured outside less over time. In her later years in Kensington she loved to watch the life of the neighborhood and became particularly attuned to the life of animals who were part of that neighborhood: birds of all kinds, squirrels, and occasional deer who would come leaping through our backyard. Most of all she loved the rabbits that were common in spring and summer.

My mother’s main values were kindness and generosity. Everyone who met her, most often at our house, was struck by the interest she took in them and the friendliness with which she welcomed them even at times when she was not feeling that well.

Sad to say, she was well acquainted with human tragedy. Her beloved younger brother Bobby died under unclear circumstances (unclear at least to me; I don’t know what anybody else knew or knows) when he was 28. Her Aunt Alice took lifelong care of her own son Lee, and when Alice passed away, no one else in the family ever knew what happened to Lee. My mother helped raise her youngest siblings, about 15 years younger than her. She was profoundly affected when one of them, Cynthia, passed away about a decade ago after living with her husband and daughter in western Pennsylvania and working for some years as a trucker.

I always wished that someone would write something from my mother’s perspective on the world. Although I’ve certainly never tried it, her influence is still all over my own writing. I learned a great deal from her about the behavior of many people, and her understanding of human motivation was often striking. She could tell startling and sometimes, I have to admit, harrowing stories that made clear what conflicts people wrestled with and what unexpected things could happen to them.

She is survived by her husband Dewey, by her brother Bruce, and by both of her sons, me and my younger brother Paul. I miss her very much and can hear, and will always continue to hear, her voice.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Men Often Need To Feel Like Heroes: On Longfellow's poem "Excelsior"

Men often need to feel like heroes.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 poem “Excelsior” takes on new meaning in our current times. Often considered ridiculous, and one of the most frequently parodied (even at the time) American poems of the 19th century, it tells the story of a young man carrying a banner reading “Excelsior” who climbs towards the top of a mountain during a snow storm and dies.

Longfellow intended the climbing of the mountain as a metaphor for too much ambition, like the story of Icarus, and at least some sympathetic readers of the time read the poem that way. But in the poem the young man doesn’t climb the mountain for any identifiable reason. People along the way urge him to stop but he refuses to listen to their advice and hurries to his death. His ambition isn’t ambition for any specific exterior goal. He’s on a heroic quest, that’s all, with no goal whatsoever except to climb to the top of a mountain in the snow and feel heroic. The poem praises his beauty and laments his death.

In the United States, after the revolutionary era and the War of 1812 and before the Civil War, some American men felt frustrated at the limited opportunities for heroism. Daniel Webster’s 1826 speech after the deaths on July 4 of that year of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson suggested that heroism was not the lot of the current generation, that they would have to settle for building on what the revolutionary heroes had founded.

Feeling heroic about yourself while heading straight towards death for no reason at all? These days it seems that Longfellow was onto something important about the American (white?) male psyche, although what seems like it must have been Longfellow’s attempt in the poem to make the tale tragic never really manages to make it seem more than foolish.

That’s because wanting to be a hero without wanting to be a hero about any problem in specific turns out to be, in the poem, just a death wish in disguise. The young man wants to die a hero but the only one who thinks his death is heroic is him. Everybody else thinks it’s foolish except maybe Longfellow, who to his credit, or not, makes no direct comment about the value of the young man’s quest and presents mostly a beautiful sadness at this pointless death.

When the desire to die a heroic death becomes more important than the cause one wishes to die for, acting on it isn’t heroism but foolishness. Being heroic requires doing something importantly beneficial at great risk to yourself, not putting yourself (or others) at great risk over nothing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Brief Takes: The Allen Fisher Companion

The Allen Fisher Companion

Edited by Robert Hampson and cris cheek
Shersman Books 2020
301 pgs.

It was fun spending a couple of weeks in the company of these essays. The work of British poet and artist Allen Fisher has often been difficult to get in the U.S.. Because of that and other (insert self-chastisement?) reasons, his work until now had been mostly rumor to me beyond a few pieces here and there.

The essays, by various writers, reveal Fisher as a link, not missing but necessary, across poetic and artistic approaches, including the mythologizing grandeur of Charles Olson, international experimental art practices like Fluxus and related endeavors from the late 60s and 70s and forward, and a documentary poetics of scientific and historical materialism that has become prominent again recently among poets in the last decade and more. Fisher’s use of science and history feel especially illuminated in the writing collected here. Different essays also point out that Fisher’s work has been devoted not just to making links between widely varying practices but to celebrating fissures and gaps and the possibilities of the unknown. If these essays are any evidence, Fisher doesn’t so much bring it all together as show how that can’t be done while at the same time exploring just how much there is to know.

Edited by Robert Hampson and cris cheek, the gathered essays and discussions in The Allen Fisher Companion explore various facets of Fisher’s writing, performance work, and art, including his grounding in philosophy and literary theory. All of the essays are informative even if some of them feel a little insular and overwritten. Insularity, of course, is one risk that a highly intellectual poetry like Fisher’s is always in danger of running. I appreciated the thoroughness of the analysis in this collection and enjoyed the occasional breaks into a more relaxed and poetic prose like that of cheek and Pierre Joris, who has two essays in the collection. The social and intellectual milieu of Fisher’s friends and poetic companions was especially intriguing and useful to learn about. Concluding the book are two long discussions with Fisher and other poets, including a series of letters between Fisher and British-Canadian poet Karen Mac Cormack.

I would say that I doubt this book will broaden the audience for Fisher’s work except that it had exactly that effect in my case. The work collected here establishes Fisher and his productions in various mediums as a central part of British poetry and art from the late 60s until now. Fisher comes across as someone who is always pushing, reaching, experimenting. At the heart of his work and this collection is the insistence that poetry can be a rigorously intellectual endeavor that combines multiple discourses and approaches in a way few other fields of contemporary writing do.