Category Archives: Forgotten Writers

Forgotten Writers: Deborah Willis on Shirley Faessler

debbieAccording to the foreword to A Basket of Apples, Shirley Faessler’s stories began as tales told around a kitchen table. Faessler ran a rooming house for actors in Toronto, and would entertain the entertainers with stories of Yankev the Bootlegger, Henye the Hunchback, and Raisel the Galloping Consumptive. This “witty and uncompromising writer”—as she was described by Alice Munro—spoke of a time, place and people that have slipped away: the 1920s and ’30s immigrant Jews of Toronto’s Kensington Market, who lived and worked, who teased and danced, who loved and married and mourned, who sipped tea through sugar cubes, who spoke accented English and passionate Yiddish.

I can never know this world, but am hungry for it because it is close to the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents. The Jewish side of my family is from Latvia and Galicia (a region that is now part of Poland and the Ukraine), whereas Faessler writes of Rumanians and Russians, but I try to imagine my people brushing up against hers—perhaps my great-grandmother knew of Mottele Blabbermouth or Misha Liar. Perhaps my great-grandfather sometimes joined “his buddies in the back room of an ice-cream parlour on Augusta Avenue for a glass of wine, a game of klaberjass, pinocle, dominoes.” Or perhaps not. Maybe the Yiddish spoken by Faessler’s characters would have been incomprehensible to the Yiddish speakers in my family. And perhaps it doesn’t matter, because Faessler’s stories are, quite simply, moving and funny and dramatic.

They take place in kitchens with peeling linoleum, around dinners where tables aren’t set but cutlery is tossed down, where the burnt edges are scraped off the honey cake. The language is as plain as the setting, but the modest people that populate the book have huge hearts, surprising the reader with their loyalty and fervor, and the dialogue crackles with humor:

“I don’t even get to drink l’chaim to the couple?” Haskele protested.

“With water,” Fenya said. “I see how people which they have weak stomachs drink l’chaim with a glass of water. And people which they have weak heads should do the same.”

Shirley Faessler was sixty years old when she published her first story in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. She went on to publish a novel that apparently gave her difficulty (what novel doesn’t give its author difficulty?), and a collection of stories that was universally praised, even by the likes of Munro. Her work emerged from a lost world in literature, when an editor might drop by a writer’s house to ensure that she doesn’t burn her manuscript, and when a writer would give typewritten pages—the only copy of the manuscript in existence—to the editor to carry home.

Bfaessler_cvr-3d-300p-196x300ut of course, so it goes in this life (as Faessler’s sly and resigned narrative voice might say), her work fell out of print for years. When my friend, who is Faessler’s niece, handed me a copy of this collection at a dinner party, I had never heard of Shirley Faessler. Her collection is only available now thanks to the dedication of her editor, Lily Poritz Miller, and Bill Gladstone, a publisher who created Now and Then Books to preserve Toronto’s Jewish History.

Many of the stories in A Basket of Apples are told from the perspective of Sarah Glicksman, the author’s alter-ego, raised by a Rumanian father and Russian stepmother. These stories are linked, and are about the links between people: an aunt and her long-lost nephew, a stepmother and orphans, sisters and brothers. Faessler is a particularly keen observer of flawed marriages that begin with a marriage broker and end when one partner dies. She takes a long, honest look at the way Sarah’s father, who has all the economic power, is capable of harming his wife:

“More than once with one swipe of his hand my father would send a few plates crashing to the floor and stalk out. She’d sit a minute looking in our faces, one by one, then start twirling her thumbs and talking to herself. What had she done now?

“Eat!” she’d admonish us, and leaving the table would go to the mirror over the kitchen sink and ask herself face to face, “What did I do now?””

But Faessler also shows the toughness of Sarah’s stepmother, the miraculous way this woman maintains her wicked humor and sweetness. And she shows the vulnerability of the husband, who despite his temper, will soak his wife’s feet and “scrape away with a razor blade at her calluses and corns.”

Faessler is also marvelous when she writes about the ways mothers and daughters love and irritate each other:

“Why doesn’t she cut down on the bread, does she have to drink twenty glasses of tea a day? No wonder her feet are sore, carrying around all that weight…” reflects Sarah about her stepmother, only to state, a few pages later: “She breaks my heart. I want to put my arms around her, but I can’t do it.”

This relationship between stepmother Chayele and her children is the heart of the book. Tragedy doesn’t strike in these pages, but there are devastating scenes of Chayele’s stepchildren arguing over how to tell her that their father, her husband, has died—after he refused to inform his wife that he had cancer in the first place, in an attempt to spare her feelings.

the-dark“What kind of life is it to be alone?” this book asks, then starkly shows that when a wife dies, the husband will mourn her and remarry. But when a husband dies, the women deal with a more profound loneliness, struggling on in houses that are too big for them, with housework they are no longer inspired to do, relying on children who nag and adore them but are unable or unwilling to take them in.

This is a terribly realist book, unapologetically specific to its setting, but also a book that shows us humanity at its most universal. Through its tender and ironic depictions of Auntie Chayele, Pinnie the Intellectual, and other characters who are somehow both larger-than-life and humbly real, these stories capture the deep love and heart-stopping grief of ordinary lives.

Deborah Willis was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her fiction has appeared in The Walrus, The Virginia Quarterly, The Iowa Review, Lucky Peach, and Zoetrope. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the the Globe and Mail‘s Best Books of 2009, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Her second collection of short stories, The Dark and Other Love Stories, is out now. 

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Forgotten Writers: Daphne Kalotay on Daphne du Maurier

Daphne Kalotay, author of the newly released novel, Russian Winter, revisits Daphne du Maurier in this month’s Forgotten Writers column.

The “Other” Daphne: du Maurier’s Short Stories

Like many readers, my introduction to Daphne du Maurier came in the form of a paperback edition of Rebecca (the Jane Eyre-inspired novel about an English waif who, marrying a wealthy widower, is haunted by assumptions about his dead wife.)  Though I was in my early teens, already I could tell from the big, swirly letters on cover that this was “popular” fiction, not “literature.”  Indeed, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.  And yet the prose was attentive and measured.  Not only was the physical setting (a mansion by the sea) lushly depicted, but the psychological landscape, too, was achingly precise; I still recall the young protagonist’s yearning for her husband’s love—her longing for intimacy and affirmation, and her acute attention to what his every word or action might indicate about his feelings.  As much as the story is a gothic mystery, it is also realistic portrayal of the way that relationships sag under the weight of unspoken truths.  And this is just one of the reasons du Maurier deserves to be viewed—as she herself long desired—as a “serious” writer of talent and depth.

Not until college did I read more of du Maurier’s work, after watching—and being haunted by—the film Don’t Look Now.  I learned that its apt and eerie setting (Venice, with its dark and labyrinthine streets) and ingenious plot (a couple grieving the loss of their daughter meets a pair of spinsters, one of whom claims to be psychic and to have seen the couple’s little girl) came directly from a du Maurier story of the same title.  Then I learned that Hitchock’s The Birds, too, was originally a du Maurier story.  (A number of her novels, too, became films—including Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca.)  It is the cinematic scope of these works, and the unforgettable, often disquieting images du Maurier created on the page, that I admire as a writer of my own stories and novels.

Take, for instance, this image from “The Birds” (in which a farm laborer in a seaside town tries to protect his family from the onslaught of suddenly vicious birds):

In the distance he could see the clay hills, white and clean, against the  heavy pallor of the sky.  Something black rose from behind them, like a smudge at first, then widening, becoming deeper, and the smudge became a cloud, and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west, and they were not clouds at all; they were birds.

Or the moment when the farmer attempts to clear away birds that have died in the latest struggle:

He meant to drop the birds into [the pit], but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds.

It is an awful vision.  And du Maurier’s stories are often about vision—literally (as in “The Blue Lenses,” where a patient’s sight is medically restored, with disturbing results) and metaphorically (the second sight in “Don’t Look Now,” or the mistaking, in “La Sainte-Vierge” of a glimpsed human being for a godly apparition.)  Even Rebecca is about lack of sight, or insight, the narrator at last being disabused of her notions by having to face a more frightful truth. It is this psychological acuity that I most appreciate in du Maurier’s work, her gift for making our most human fears—of death and failure and loss of love—tangible, literal, whether in the form of the young bride deserting her husband for a cloistered community in “Monte Verita” or the confused widow discovering her home populated by strangers, and herself unrecognized, in “Split Second.”  These stories possess the sensory richness and emotional accuracy of nightmares.  And despite their shock value, the surprise endings are no mere plot tricks.  For they contain that most basic truth: of the known—or suspected—versus confusion or self-deception, of hard physical reality versus fantasy.  Such lessons are always harsh; and so these stories horrify.

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Forgotten Writers: Michelle Hoover on William Gass

Michelle Hoover talks about William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country:

I doubt William Gass will ever allow himself to be forgotten, but there are still far too many readers out there who haven’t opened the above story collection only to find themselves dreaming and alone in a cold, windswept place.  I read the collection’s first title, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” when I was in grad school.  It was 95 degrees that day, and even the flies were sweating, but by the time I reached the last page in one dizzy session, I was wrapped in blankets and shivering.  That’s what Gass’s descriptions of a Midwestern storm does to a person, for he repeats the word “snow” like a mantra.  When the characters finally venture out to discover what sent the neighbor’s son (the before-named Pedersen’s kid) running mid-blizzard from his home, the story, as told by the family’s only child, Jorge, falls into frozen territory:

“There wasn’t any wind.  The harness creaked, the wood creaked, the runners made a sound like a saw working easy, and everything was white about Horse Simon’s feet.  Pa had the reins between his knees and he and Hans and I kept ourselves close together.  We bent our heads and clenched our feet and wished we could huddle both hands in one pocket.  Only Hans was breathing through his nose.”

But weather isn’t the only thing that haunts this plot.  Having found the kid nearly frozen near their front door, the family has to wait until he wakes to hear the boy’s story:“Just his back.  The green mackinaw.  The black stocking cap.  The yellow gloves.  The gun….  He put them down the cellar so I ran.”

The murderer of the Pedersen family is never identified more clearly than that, and the fact of his existence remains a question throughout.  This is exactly what Gass intends.  In a family lost to drink and suspicion, one that beats (and possibly does worse to) its sons, the villain is as much Pa and Hans as it is the young narrator’s mother, the winter’s unrelenting cold, and Jorge himself.  This is a story that twists to such a terrible, ecstatic ending that you will reread it ten times over and never get it out of your bones.

But it’s the collection’s title story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” that fewer readers know.  The “heart” in this case is two-fold.  First it is the heartland, as the story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come… to B… a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”  It is also the “heart” of the speaker, having been abandoned by his lover in this dusty, nowhere place, as he explains:  “I am in retirement from love.”

Like the narrator, the story structure itself is shattered, more a prose-poem than story, with short sections titled “A Place” and “Weather” and “My House.”  Though both pieces are grounded in loneliness, this one meditates on isolation without violence, and the slow ache of the narration not only nails a lost, Midwestern town in style and tone, but also the state of having been left, of that peculiar kind of absence that follows when a person believed himself loved and found he was wrong.  “In the Midwest,” the narrator writes, “around the lower Lakes, the sky in the winter is heavy and close, and it is a rare day, a day to remark on, when the sky lifts and allows the heart up.  I am keeping count, and as I write this page, it is eleven days since I have seen the sun.”

In his must-read collection of essays Bringing Down the House, Charles Baxter writes about “stillness” in fiction, and he mostly cites stories either told by Midwestern writers or set in Midwestern territory.  Although Baxter didn’t cite Gass, I believe such stillness is what defines much of Midwestern literature and what also keeps its identity so ambiguous. This stillness quietly brims with far more emotion and event than any cosmopolitan party scene.  I’d rather keep such parties in my real life (as I tend to do) and explore the greater silences in my fiction.

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Forgotten Writers: Philip White on Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

Philip White:

It’s been too hard for too long to find the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  I’m glad to see a new Selected due out soon.  I hope it has all of the sonnets, since there, for me, is where Tuckerman’s strength lies.  A few are already familiar, tucked between the big names in anthologies of nineteenth century poetry.  There’s the uncannily luminous shading of the natural world in the one beginning “Dank fens of cedar” (1.7.1), for example, and the near-symbolist fraying of syntax under emotional pressure in the one that ends

And, with a swooning of the heart, I think

Where the black shingles slope to meet the boughs

And—shattered on the roof like smallest snows—

The tiny petals of the mountain-ash. (1.10.11-14)

Dozens of sonnets in Tuckerman’s five part sequence are just as evocative.

But Tuckerman, though raised in Brahmin Boston, was a naturalist—a recognized authority on stars and local flowers. He doesn’t, in the sonnets, simply strike easy romantic attitudes toward nature.  Nature for him is ground and material—the scene, subject, and source of human attention.

Each sonnet, like the sequence as a whole, is an act of a credible emotional intelligence driven by the “bitter need” (2.35.11) of grief to interrogate itself, its art, and its world.  Natural pain binds Tuckerman to his surroundings, sharpening his attunement to its allures and its dangers. His desire that “in his thought should be / Some power of wind, some drenching of the sea; / Some drift of stars across a darkling coast” (5.15.5-7) is everywhere manifest and achieved, but he can also find in that absorption a horror equal to that of mortality:

‘Lo! Death is at the doors,’ he [Ecclesiastes] cries, ‘with blows.’

But what to him, unto whose feverish sense

The stars tick audibly, and the wind’s low surge

In the pine, attended, tolls, and throngs, and grows

On the dread ear,–a thunder too profound

For bearing,–a Niagara of sound. (1.17.9-14)

Stars that “tick,” a “low” wind that “tolls,” “throngs,” and “grows”: presence to nature is here presence to temporality itself.  The abyssal sublimity of this ordinary moment approaches Sartrean nausea, that crisis of an even later romanticism.

There are pieties, religious and romantic, to be sure, in the sequence.  But even these, taken in context and read home, seem feelingly weighed and idiosyncratic. In one of his valedictory sonnets, he asks to be thought of as

one, who from his window look’d and saw

His little hemlocks in the morning sun,

And while he gaz’d, into his heart, almost

The peace that passeth understanding, past. (5.15.11-14)

“Almost,” “past”—the poem at once half-offers and half-retracts.  Two rhymes from earlier in the poem teeter together in a hovering not-quite couplet close.  The third person self-address, the standing as if in spectatorship of one’s grief as on one’s moment of “almost” transcendence—and on one’s entire life in poetry—Tuckerman’s layering of qualifications here is not dithering, but scrupulousness, poetic honesty.

Three American Poets: Melville, Tuckerman and Robinson. Ed. Jonathan Bean.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

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Forgotten Writers: David Rivard on Edwin Denby

Memorious contributor David Rivard, author of Otherwise Elsewhere, is this week’s contributor.

Neon in Daylight Is a Great Pleasure: Edwin Denby

Edwin Denby, like the other poets I considered writing about here—Tom Clark, Alan Dugan, Margo Lockwood—possesses a precision and clarity all the more attractive for seeming off-hand, almost unintentional.  It’s anything but, of course.  You get to this manner by burning off the undergrowth, the affectations of language—the rhetorical excesses of vocalese—but you have to avoid taking the lyric forest down with it.

Why Denby’s poetry isn’t as widely read as it should be is, in some ways, easy to explain.  His reputation as the greatest American dance critic of the 20th century so far eclipses his life as a poet as to render it near invisible.  Plus, the bulk of his poetry was written in one narrow form: the sonnet.  And then there’s the way in which these sonnets hover (sometimes awkwardly) between an allegiance to the tradition and an experimentation more natural to the improvisations of the mid-century avant-garde (the New York School, Beats, Black Mountain).  And he seems by nature to have been a shy man.  Several books of his poetry appeared in his lifetime; but Ron Padgett, his eventual editor, describes him as increasingly “skittish” about these.  His Complete Poems came out in 1986 from Random House, not long after his death.  Like his other books, it is out of print (but available from used booksellers on the web).

Denby ranges in tone from the bracingly severe to the exultant and playful to the elegiac—often all in a single poem.  One of my favorite pieces will give the flavor of his work overall:

New York dark in August, seaward

Creeping breeze, building to building

Old poems by Frank O’Hara

At 3 a.m. I sit reading

Like a blue-black surf rider, shark

Nipping at my Charvet tie, toe-tied

Heart in my mouth—or my New York

At dawn smiling I turn out the light

Inside out like a room in gritty

Gale, features moving fierce or void

Intimate, the lunch hour city

One’s own heart eating undestroyed

Complicities of New York speech

Embrace me as I fall asleep

This style of notational color has affinities with other poets (Gary Snyder, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan come quickly to mind); the juxtapositions and shiftings in the scale of perception that are produced by collaging are quintessentially modernist.  The wit that connects the solitary older man reading late at night to the surfer feels more a part of the traditional logic of the sonnet form.  An elegiac undercurrent tempers the pleasure.  As with many other Denby poems, the feeling is intimate, wry, lonely, clear-eyed in its observations.  It has a bit of the quality of homemade cosmic lament I associate with Tu Fu or Li Po—as if New York were just another sleeping village late at night in summer somewhere near the river of heaven.  Which of course it is.  A place where one of the “dignified culture Joes” might have worn a tie sewn by a couture tailor.

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Forgotten Writers: David Baker on Mbembe Milton Smith & Allison Benis White on Killarney Clary

Welcome to our new column, Forgotten Writers. We have invited writers to drop in and tell us about writers who they believe are underappreciated or forgotten. Our first visitors for this series are David Baker and Allison Benis White, and future guests will include Memorious contributors Sean Singer and David Rivard.

David Baker on Mbembe Milton Smith:

In a country and at a time when a very respectable sales figure for a poet, for a year, might be 2000 or 3000 copies of a book, it feels like nearly everyone is underappreciated or forgotten.  And yet, a few poets are dramatically over-appreciated, too.  Shh, let’s not name names here.  Poetry should not be a fashion-statement or a competition.  Every poet thinks he or she is underappreciated.  Every poet, now, has his or her cadre or clique and everyone else be damned.

I wish more people were reading Roethke, and James Wright, and Edna Millay.  Or how about poems, not poets?  Today my list includes Warren’s “Audubon,” Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s beautiful “Friendship after Love,” and Milosz’s “After Paradise.”

Today I nominate a poet from Kansas City for your list.  Tomorrow I would probably name someone else.  But today:  Milton Smith.  Or Mbembe, as he adopted in his adulthood, or Mbembe Milton Smith.  I knew him in the mid-70s, when I was in college at nearby Central Missouri State University.  I was maybe 21, he was maybe 30.  Articulate, driven, Black, passionate, poetic, handsome, and as they say of poets sometimes, angry.  He died by suicide in 1984, and left behind four books and a couple of manuscripts.  BKMK Press did publish his Selected Poems in 1986.  Here are opening lines of his “Suffer the Children,” filtering Whitman and the street:

you will find my fragments on every street corner
where a neon sign blinks the surreal image
of scotches and sex larger than sunrise.
in every marijuana dream you will find drugged pieces
of me dribbling off the end of a four-four tune
into the void.

Poetry is patient.  People are impatient.  The point is not developing or finding a wide readership; the point is writing for a long one.

Allison Benis White on Killarney Clary:

I’ve heard it argued that one measure of the potency of literature is that its strangeness forces the reader to change her world to incorporate it, or to leave her world to join the one the writer has created. Killarney Clary’s book of prose poems, Who Whispered Near Me, has both effects on me. It is such odd, intimate work: “we are sincere and self-conscious, like nervous laughter.” I regularly bring up her name, and this book in particular, in conversations with other writers, and I’m surprised at how many people aren’t familiar with her poems. But then again there are so many amazing writers on the periphery, and we must rely on each other to say here, look.


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