Friday, February 26, 2010

Davy Crockett's Hat (on Marjorie Perloff and her book The Vienna Paradox)

Cover of Wittgenstein's Ladder
Horlgasse, Vienna
Marjorie Perloff The Vienna Paradox (New York: New Directions, 2004).

At dinner one night at Marjorie Perloff’s house—an event with just a handful of couples as opposed to her usually larger affairs—the conversation turned to the subject of what those around the table, all quite renowned in our fields, had done before embarking upon our current careers. I can’t recall large parts of this friendly dinner conversation—which I believe included the artists Susan Rankaitis and Robert Flick, Marjorie’s daughter Nancy, a curator at the Getty Museum, and her husband Rob, scholars Renée Riese and Judd Hubert, and Howard and me—but I do remember reminding Marjorie that she had once told me that early in her career she had been so desperate for a job that she had applied at small colleges such as Beaver College (now called Arcadia University). Knowing of Marjorie’s erudition, her brilliant writing and teaching abilities, and gift of language(s), the idea of her teaching in that self-advertised pastoral place of peace and quiet in the Philadelphia suburbs was unthinkable for everyone in the room.

Marjorie laughed, admitting that as a young housewife she’d had numerous jobs, even producing German titles for American films. “You can’t imagine how difficult it is to translate the humor of Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz’s The Long, Long Trailer into German. How do you say, as Lucy does, “turn left right here, which leads Desi to swerve right.” “I also worked on Davy Crockett,” Marjorie admitted, “I still have a coonskin cap!” We broke into delighted laughter, while she went to find it in a nearby closet.

The very thought that this great woman of academic renown had once worked on the very movies that I had attended as a child with my entire family was a revelation. As a family unit we shared perhaps only four movies (the other two being White Christmas and The Ten Commandments), and the idea that Marjorie had in any way had been connected to the other two films seemed almost miraculous; I remember feeling at the time that it may have been the only thing in our backgrounds, outside of the classroom camaraderie of teacher and student, that connected us!

Soon after, the conversation turned to Marjorie’s childhood. We all knew that she had been born in Austria, the daughter of highly educated parents, and that she had escaped with her family via train on the night of March 13, 1938, the day the Anschluss (Austria’s political annexation by Germany) took effect. “My parents simply could not believe that the Austrian government could possibly submit to the Germans,” she reported. When asked to describe that shattering event, Marjorie demurred. “I can hardly remember anything. I was just a child at the time. I can only recall my mother telling my brother and me to be very quiet.”

The publication of her memoir, The Vienna Paradox, accordingly, was more than just an event of interest for those of us close to this remarkable woman; it seemed a sort of personal answer to our dinner time questions.

That book’s reproduction of the first two chapters of her childhood travel journal, “Die Areise” (“The ‘A’ Journey”) poignantly reveal the mixed feelings of a six year-old girl experiencing the excitement of events, but perhaps not recognizing their intense danger and significance; she translates:

“On the Train”

On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of
them, complained they didn’t sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get up
and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my
poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had
to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down
on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant
where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this
restaurant, I didn’t yet have any idea that later in America I would write a
book. Well, I hadn’t experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be more!

Perloff compares that charmingly innocent view of the family’s circumstance with a letter from her mother sent two days later to her sister in London, in which the family’s terror is quite clearly elucidated: the intense planning and packing up of family possessions, the sleepless night of March 12th, the “incessant shouts of ‘Sieg Heil!,” the sound of bombers flying overhead and vehicles rumbling through the streets, the hurried goodbyes, the tears. The same events of the young daughter’s travel journal are far more dramatically detailed in her mother’s recounting:

So we finished packing and left in the evening: my father-in-law, Stella,
Otto, Hedy and Greta, and Aunt Gerti. Those who didn’t have the same
last name had to pretend not to know one another. This applied to the
children as well: they were not allowed to speak and in fact didn’t speak.
We traveled comfortably second-class as far as Innsbruck. The children
slept. In Innsbruck, there was passport control: for Jews, the order was,
“Get off the train with your luggage.” Aunt Gerti was allowed to continue.
Evidently, they took her for Aryan although no one asked. We were taken
by the S.A. to the police office, across from the railway station. There, we
were held in a narrow corridor, heavily guarded. One after another, we
were called into a room where our passports were examined, our money
confiscated (since the rules had been changed overnight). They took 850
marks and the equivalent in schillings. We didn’t care the slightest.
Our thought was only: will they let us travel further? Will we be arrested?
Then all of our luggage was unpacked piece by piece. Finally, we were
allowed to leave. …Back on the train, we passed one military convoy
after another going the other way.
At 10 in the evening, we arrived [in Zürich].
…Here we are deciding what to do next.

This letter alone might have been a scenario for a film.

But Perloff’s profound memoir is more than another story of escape from Nazi control. For Marjorie is less interested in how her family escaped, than she is in why they and others like them had waited for the very last moment to leave their beloved home; how their seeming assimilation as Jews into the anti-Semitic Austrian culture so completely misled these brilliant individuals; and, just as important, how these assimilated Austrians readily adapted themselves to their new American situations.

Gabriele Mintz was born to Ilse Schüller Mintz and Maximilian Mintz in 1931. Her early childhood took place in the comfort of the Ninth District of Vienna near the University and Votifkirche (the neo-Gothic cathedral built in the mid-19th century on the sight of the attempted murder of the young kaiser Franz Joseph), the neighborhood she herself describes as “Austrian upper-middle-class.” Their apartment on Hörlgasse contained a high-ceilinged nursery painted white, heated by a large porcelain stove; a dining room and adjacent salon with floor-to-ceiling bookcases; and a maid.

Gabriele’s father, Maximilian was a lawyer with a passion for poetry and art, which he shared with a circle of friends known as the Geistkreis, which included noted economists Friedrich Hayek (the group’s founder and a major influence on American Libertarianism), Gottfried von Haberler, Oscar Morgenstern, and Fritz Machlup, legal scholar Herbert Fürth (also a partner in Maximilian and his father’s law firm), art historians Otto Benesch and Johannes Wile, musicologist Emanuel Winernitz, political philosopher Erich Voegelin (with whom the father continued to correspond from 1938 to the late 1950s), the phenomenologists Felix Kaufmann (also a member of the famed “Vienna Circle”) and Alfred Schütz, the historian Friedrich Engel-Jansi, and the mathematician Karl Menger (former tutor to Archduke Rudolf von Habsburg and, later, founder of the Austrian School of Economics). The group, in Perloff’s words, devoted “evenings to the theater, opera, concerts, and their own areas of reading.” But the group’s influence—with its interweaving memberships with other such Vienna groups: the earlier “Menger circle,” the first “Austrian school,” and the “Vienna Circle”—made it influential to 20th century thinking.

It must have been difficult for Gabriele’s mother, Ilse, to accept the role of silent hostess, serving coffee and cake before discreetly leaving the room at the Geistkreis meetings in Hörlgasse 6. For she, like her husband, was a “proud intellectual,” with a doctorate—a degree also attained by her two sisters—in economics. Some of the reviews of Perloff’s memoir refer to her mother’s role in her later life in the United States as a “housewife.” But in fact, she took a second doctorate in economics at Columbia University, later combining teaching at Columbia with a position, alongside noted economists Martin Feldstein (later president of that organization and chief economic advisor to President Reagan) and Milton Friedman (winner of a Nobel Prize) at the National Bureau of Economic Research. A search of the NBR website still calls up several essays by Ilse Mintz on such subjects as “Determination in the Quality of Foreign Bonds,” “American Exports During Business Cycles, 1879-1958,” and “Cyclical Fluctuations in the Exports of the United States Since 1879.” I recall Marjorie’s humorous dismay in our early friendship in Washington, D.C., when, after discussing Pound, O’Hara, and David Antin, she observed, “Of course, my mother is distressed that I’m not reading Goethe.”

The young Gabrielle’s grandfathers were even more illustrious figures in Viennese culture. Her maternal grandfather, Richard Schüller, born in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic, traveled to Vienna to study law with Karl Menger, later serving as the Austrian representative to the League of Nations. In the Austrian government, he served first in the Department of Commerce and later in the Foreign Office under chancellor Dollfuss (and the successor upon Dollfuss’s murder, Kurt Schuschnigg), a position from which he negotiated major trade agreements and foreign loans for the Austrian government (including a trade agreement with Mussolini). Schüller escaped Nazi-controlled Austria at the age of 68 by hiking through the Alpine pass into Italy. Her paternal grandfather, Alexander Mintz, was an eminent Justitzrat (King’s counsel) who, in his youth, was a member of the noted literary coterie meeting at the Café Griensteidl that included Arthur Schnitzer, Hermann Bahr, and Peter Altenberg.

In short, one could not imagine a family more involved in Austrian cultural life. How could they be so oblivious to the problems—particularly after Dollfuss’s murder? Perloff analyzes the problem first within the perspective of her own family: Richard Schüller was asked by his government superiors to allow himself to be baptized (he refused “the honor”); his brothers Hugo and Ludwig became Lutherans, the latter committing suicide in 1931 upon the collapse of his bank; and a distant cousin, Robert, was a devoted Nazi who after the Anschluss was sent to his death in Auschwitz. Perloff then considers these issues in the context of accounts such as that of art historian Ernst Gombrich (colleague of Perloff’s uncle, Otto Kurz) of the physical assault against Jews in the university, long before the Anschluss, where it became increasingly common for Nazis to beat up Jewish students, sometimes defenestrating them so that upon the sidewalk they might be charged (if they survived) with disturbing the peace (an incident also described in Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento story, “Julia”). How could they tolerate these assaults and still describe themselves as Austrians? she wonders, a question reverberating, quite obviously, back upon her own family’s acceptance of their disintegrating Viennese life.

Ultimately, she suggests that they saw their assimilation through a cultural lens that did not include ethnic and racial concerns. Since they shared cultural interests such as their love of Goethe, Stefan George and others, they perceived themselves as Austrians without realizing that for their countrymen in general they remained racially “outsiders.” Their allegiance to the Germanic tradition blinded them, in a crucial way, to the religious and ethnic differences embedded in German and Austrian thought.

Gombrich’s statement that he doesn’t “believe that there is a separate Jewish cultural tradition” may signify his failure to comprehend the deeply ingrained ideas of his countrymen, but it simultaneously points to the reason why many Austrian Jews, including Perloff’s parents, were able to quickly readjust their lives to their new American experience, were able to reinvent themselves as émigrés. While recognizing and disdaining the anti-intellectualism of their new home, Perloff’s parents quickly adapted to their now “lower middle-class” situation. Her father abandoned law to become an accountant, and despite now having to cook all meals by herself in their one-bedroom apartment, Marjorie’s mother still found time (and energy) to return to university studies.

Gabrielle, moreover, like young immigrants everywhere, adapted to her life at an even faster rate. Within a month of her arrival in a new country, she switches from German to English in mid-sentence of an autobiographical entry:

Abe rim September musten [sic] wir angemeldet werden. Ich und
eben der Hansi [the son of Professor Felix Kaufmann, of Geitskreis
fame, and his physician wife, Else] kamen erst in de erste A, mein
Bruder in die drite [sic] A und meine Cousinen in die vierte B.
But my Kronstein cousins went to another school. After three days
I and George [as Hansi is now called!] skipped to 2A.

She has not only skipped a whole grade in three days, but crossed the language barrier as well. When Gabriele graduated high school, she changed her name to Margie, and later Marjorie.

Much of The Vienna Paradox recounts the education and transformation of its author from an Austrian-born child to a professor of contemporary poetry—answering some questions we had begun to ask at that dinner-time conversation years earlier. She recounts her education at P.S. 7 and at The Fieldston School—sponsored by the New York Ethical Society—as well as her later graduate education at Catholic University. She mentions also her early employment at the Bettmann Archive and her short-lived job as an M-G-M title writer, which included her work on The Long, Long Trailer and Kiss Me Kate. But Davy Crockett and his hat has disappeared from the narrative, replaced in her memoir by her recollection of composing rhymes for Nelson Eddy’s “Indian Love Song” of Rose Marie, a job which earned her a “trapper’s hat.” Was my memory wrong? Had my desire for connections been so strong that I had transformed Nelson Eddy into Davy Crockett? It hardly matters; as we know, memory is often unreliable, and the story was the same. Most likely Perloff’s research of the events of her life had revealed something different from what she herself had recalled that long-ago night.

Over time perspective changes. As she relates of her 1955 return to Vienna, the city “looked like a set for The Third Man,” “I tried to find Hörlgasse 6…but something got mixed up and [we] took a photograph of the wrong house.” “From my vantage point in 1955, none of this seemed very real.” Perloff, accordingly, has little patience with those who perpetually tout the superiority of pre-war Viennese life over their new American lives in the present. The young Gabrielle clearly grew up more involved in American popular culture, perhaps, than her Iowa-bred student—and with the advantage of a cultural heritage that deepens and enlivens her observations on American literature and art. And in that sense Perloff is herself a “Vienna paradox.”

I first met the adult Marjorie in a classroom at the University of Maryland in 1975. I was a Ph.D student in American fiction, and, although I disliked poetry, I knew that I had better take a course in this mysterious genre before graduation. Word around the student-teacher bull-pen—as the large, open room containing over thirty desks was called—was that Perloff was an excellent but “difficult” teacher, by which I presumed my colleagues meant that she was “demanding.” Without any background in poetry, I felt it prudent to take another poetry course before enrolling in Perloff’s. With professor Milne Holton (who three years later would translate a book of Polish poetry with my close friend Paul Vangelisti), I studied Robert Lowell and Hart Crane. Lowell merely reinforced my belief that poetry was simply a chopped-up symbolic narrative, but, despite the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism of The Bridge, I was able to write a convincing-enough essay on Crane that it was published by a Canadian journal [see My Year 2007]. So, I felt, I was now ready for Perloff.

The moment this enthusiastic woman entered the room on the first day of class, I was spellbound. Her voice has something in common with the effusive croak of Jean Arthur’s vocal instrument, a voice I simply cannot resist. She brought just three poems with her, one by Frank O’Hara, a second by John Wieners (a poet of whom none of us, I am sure, had ever heard), and a third by Richard Wilbur.

She read the first poem, “The Day Lady Died,” and asked for our reactions. We were slow in responding, gradually coming forward with only a few obvious observations. Unknown to me, she was completing a critical book at the moment on O’Hara’s poetry (Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters), and since my classmates and I seemed unable to say anything original about the work, she brilliantly demonstrated its charms, elucidating the poem line by line.

I was flabbergasted. Could a poem be so simple and yet complex, so rich in association without a symbolic structure to support it? I still remember my unspoken feelings as she read the poem. The “I did this, I did that” pattern of this work seemed at first like something out of an amateur writer’s journal; but gradually, as the references moved from simple acts–getting a shoeshine, eating a hamburger and malted—to the literature of the day. Then, things began to shift, the subjects changing from mundane actions in the American landscape to cultural experiences of significance (the new poets of Ghana [I had purchased the same volume a few years earlier], Verlaine, Bonnard, Hesiod, Brendan Behan, Genet’s Les Nègres [the book version of which I had stolen—as I describe in another essay in this volume—from an Iowa City bookstore]) before returning to more ordinary versions of things from around the world with the bottle of Strega purchased in a liquor store and the cartons of Gauloises and Picayunes bought with the The New York Post. Suddenly, as the narrator/poet walked into the 5 Spot with Mal Waldron at the keyboard, I recognized that the “she” who whispered a song— somehow related to these exotic beings and things (many of whom and which had Black or “outsider” associations)—was even more exalted by the fact that her voice literally stopped this seemingly endless catalogue of things and events, as “everyone”—the narrator and presumably the reader as well—stopped breathing. The current of this seeming narrative had been suddenly severed, leaving me with an image of her breathlessly stunned audience, an image, as well, of myself upon hearing the poem.

My reactions to the second poem, “Long Nook,” can be found in the second issue of my journal, Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art, published a year later, written originally for the course:

There she took her lover to sea
and laid herself in the sand.

He is fast, was down the dune
with silk around his waist.
Her scarf was small.

She opened her clothes to the moon.
Her underarms were shaved.
The wind was a wall between them.
Waves break over the tide,
hands tied to her side with silk,
their mind was lost in the night.

The green light at Provincetown
became an emerald on the beach
and like stars fell on Alabama.

The poem begins with a direct narrative statement in the past tense, with the vague “There” hinting at a world beyond time, like a “faraway country” of children’s tales. However, we are immediately made to question these expectations. The construction of “to sea,” because there is no article, makes us think of the infinitive “to see,” which changes the whole tone of the line and urges us to move to the second line to discover what it is that she wants him “to see.” But we are not told. The poet simply describes the process of her lying down in the sand. The word “laid” is wrong here, however, and the object of the verb, “herself,” makes no sense. Even
as a sexual pun it is, at first thought, ludicrous. Yet, when we think back to the previous line we recall that it was she who took her lover to “sea,” and, thus, we see the connotations of the pun. As the seducer, she encourages her love to have sexual intercourse by seductively lying down in the sand, a seduction which is
reflected by Wieners’ use here of the l and s sounds (lover, laid; she, sea, herself, sand); but, in so doing, she is also taking the male role (as we shall see there are reasons for the stereotyping of roles) and, thus, in sexual slang, is “laying herself.”

Suddenly, in the next line, there is a shift. A command is whispered in the present tense, ostensibly her command: “Go up and undress in the dark.” But, in in its short, clipped iamb with a labial ending followed by two anapests, we are told more about the upward movement of the male than about her….”*

This goes on for three more pages!

My point in reproducing this passage is to demonstrate that suddenly upon hearing these poems I discovered what poetry was; and, although my graduate student eagerness to pin down the meaning of each and every word clearly belabors my writing, it is equally obvious that I could now talk about poetry in a meaningful way.

I can’t recall which poem Marjorie selected by Wilbur. It hardly matters; his poetry represented a direction different from one in which the course would proceed. By hour’s end, my life had changed! It was as if a cabinet containing rows of dusty objects d’art had been opened up, the objects taken out, inspected, and revealed to be pulsating beings ready to spring to life.

Motivated as I suddenly had become, I undertook a class report of the theories of Ezra Pound. I’m still amazed at my youthful vigor: I think I read every prose work of that poet, including his Selected Letters, learning, in the process, the concepts behind much of modernist American poetry. I still recall my frustrations in attempting to describe the Vorticist image—as opposed to what Pound described as Amygism—outlined in Pound’s Gaudier Brezska: a record of an interchange between nature and the mind, an instant “when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

“It’s sort of like when it’s raining,” whined one of my classmates, “and you’re listening to a certain song, and it makes you think of….”

“No, no, not at all,” I interrupted. “It’s not an association; it’s more like music, an abstraction that represents the objective thing.”

“Like when you feel sad and it rains all over your windshield.”

“No,” I began again. “It’s not like Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, where the trombones imitate a donkey. His emotion carries the essence in the mind, where, like a vortex, it is purged of all ‘save the essential or dominant or dramatic qualities,’ emerging ‘like the external original,’ but as something new, something different.”

“Oh, like when you’re thinking of….”

Marjorie recalls that I grew angry, but I don’t remember feeling anything other than the frustration of attempting to explain something to my classmates that perhaps not even I completely understood.

Soon after that event, a few individuals in the class began to show their hostility to Perloff’s choice of the poets we read (Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Pound, Williams—and other figures who would ultimately become the subjects of her important critical study, The Poetics of Indeterminacy).

I had already published three of my classroom papers in academic journals, and I was, I now painfully recognize, rather cocky. One day, I knocked on Perloff’s office door, head down in embarrassed determination to apologize about my peers’ classroom demeanor. I believe she recognized my apology for what it was, not a representation of my superiority, but simply an expression of my fears that she might take their obstinate opposition as evidence that she was failing to communicate. Perhaps it was at that moment that we became something more than simply teacher and student, that we became friends.

I took one more course with Marjorie, a study of Yeats and Pound. I was not, I admit, a model student in this instance. I found Yeats boring. And I felt I had already learned everything there was to know about Pound. By that time, moreover, I had begun writing poetry myself, and was editing the first issues of Sun & Moon. I had other things on my mind.

Both Marjorie and I were reviewing, during this period, for The Washington Post Book World upon the invitation of the Pulitzer-prize winning editor, Bill McPherson. And I was reading poets in little magazines—an interest that grew out of my study of John Wieners—such as Roof, Big Deal, and United Artists, all of which presented the works of poets my mentor had not yet read. As I began to develop friendships with Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein and other younger poets, Marjorie and I often had heated debates—that is, when I could get a few words in between her remarks. Anyone who has met her will tell you, and Marjorie herself will be the first to admit it, she is an artful conversationalist, able to listen to someone speaking while simultaneously expressing her own sentiments. A shy person would have little success in communicating with Marjorie.

Some of the poets I found most interesting, she felt were not worth her attention. But, although she may sometimes be quick to judgment, Perloff is seldom closed-minded. Gradually, she began to read these poets and developed an interest in some of their writing, culminating in numerous essays, including her book-length study, The Dance of the Intellect. She always encouraged my own writing, moreover, in those days when I was still meekly imitating the methods of collage I’d discovered in the work of O’Hara and Ashbery.

In the midst of this developing friendship, Marjorie’s husband Joe, a prominent cardiologist and author of the most established textbooks on the subject, became head of that program at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Perloff family moved from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia. Upon finishing my Ph.D., I was hired in 1979 by Temple University, located in the same city. So while Marjorie commuted back and forth between Philadelphia and Washington, I traveled in the opposite direction.

I recall visiting their Germantown home with Howard during my first year of teaching. Their daughter, Carey (who today is the director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco) was still in high school and Nancy was home from Princeton University. A huge dollhouse dominated one of their rooms. As we sat down to dinner, however, they began a discussion light-miles away from what one might have heard from teenage girls in any other home. Much of the work of Derrida had not yet even been translated (Of Grammatology, a work I had attempted to read without success, had been published in English only five years before), and postmodernism, let alone “post-structuralism” was not yet a term readily applied to literature. Carey and Nancy, however, had read Derrida’s work in French and brilliantly debated his theories over the roast chicken.

Soon after, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Marjorie became a professor at the University of Southern California, and over the next several years our discussions and debates were continued through the mails and telephone talks. The Perloffs were immediately delighted by their new surroundings, and Marjorie joyfully reported on her new cultural experiences, including a performance by actress Beatrice Manley of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy—in her own bed! Upon my first visit to Los Angeles for a reading, I stayed in the Perloff’s Almafi Drive house—alone, since they were traveling. Marjorie’s continued expressions of love for Los Angeles helped me adapt quickly upon our move to the same city in 1985. I jocularly admitted to all reports that I was following her around the country!

I had, in fact, moved to Los Angeles on account of my companion’s job. But sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t, after all, an ineffable force behind our friendship. How else to explain my utter fascination with a large German-language novel I’d spied in the Fifth Avenue New York shop of Brentano’s by the Austrian novelist Albert-Paris Gütersloh, Sonne und Mond; several times I asked for that glass cabinet to be unlocked so I might turn its pages, just to glimpse the book which, had I had any money, I most certainly would have purchased—despite the fact I did not read a word of German! Not even my previous pleasure in reading Robert Musil and Hermann Broch could not have have explained my obsession. It is no coincidence that my literary and art magazine and publishing house had taken its name from that lost treasure. What led me one day, I now wonder, to telephone the Knopf rights editor (the very first year of my book-publishing activities) and make an offer for the rights to reprint Heimito von Doderer’s great two-volume opus The Demons, a fiction recounting many of the events leading up to the Anschluss? Von Doderer’s Every Man a Murderer was the second book for which I purchased rights, and, when an unknown woman living in Austria, Vinal Overing Binner, wrote me to report that she translated von Doderer’s The Merovingians, I readily published that book as well (of which I think we sold something like 200 copies). Why did I suddenly choose to read Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, soon after reprinting it as well? Two Schnitzler novels, Lieutenant Gustl and Bertha Garlan, followed. How did such a small American press as Sun & Moon come to publish Friederike Mayröcker and Ingeborg Bachmann (the tale of that acquisition is worthy, some day, of recounting)? I cannot remember Marjorie suggesting any of these titles to me. From my youth on I simply have been inexplicably drawn to Austrian literature and history.

As Perloff has made clear, however, although she was shaped in many respects by her Austrian heritage, she is most definitely a product of the USA. And, although I often describe her as my mentor, my inborn sense of individuality combined with what The Music Man composer-writer Meredith Willson has described as “Iowa stubbornness,” has made me a difficult disciple. Fortunately, Marjorie never sought devotees, and our special friendship has remained. As her poignant memoir has reminded me, moreover, we have far deeper links than any frontiersman’s hat.

Los Angeles, August 23-24, 2006

*Reprinted from Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art, No. 2 (Spring 1976), 86-105.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Several Aunts

The original St. Peter and St. Paul church
in Castle Grove. This building was destroyed
in a tornado and rebuilt in 2007.

Seven Haigh sisters: Back row (left to right) Eva, Jocie, Ethel
From row (left to right) Florence, Myrtle, Addie, and Ruby. Edith
is missing.
In my second volume of poetry, Some Distance, I wrote a poem titled "Several Aunts," dedicated to some of my parents' aunts, and another poem "Swiss and German Matriarchs," a kind of broad testament to the numerous great-aunts I remember while growing up. These Iowa women were strong German, Swiss, and English females of the first generation, daughters of immigrants who often outlived their farmer husbands, sometimes marrying again and again, accumulating in the process property and occasionally wealth. Over the years of several children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren (for many lived on for a very long time, one still surviving today) some became grand matriarchs whose power throughout extensive families was seldom questioned.

Below I have reprinted the poem "Several Aunts":

Several Aunts
for Rose, Katie, Alice, Margaret, Anna, and the Lenas

silver is the last upon
a sad opportune panicked
into the fast walks hard
out of skin, nails
getting against an exact itch
gone off wrists to kill,
crow-sick, groused and meet the scent
despite any papered
down especially to mount
complete as porcupine
an anchor into cool quiet ribs,
linen, bone-forgot, real shoes
run back to carry horizontally
this velocity of latticework, slabbed
after side & straight
away to take the cake.

This is, of course, a rhythmic sense of their beings, a linguistic reconstruction of their quick and furious movements as they fought their way through their lives, loving, contending, surviving.

I don't remember much about these women. I met most of them only a few times. They were, after all, my parent's aunts, women whom they themselves had known as children but, as with most distant relatives, began fade into the background as my folks grew older.

I recently tried to pry out information on these powerful figures, some of whom even put fear into my own somewhat formidable Mother. But Lorna Caspers Messerli is now 84, and her memory is quite selective. Although she remembered some of these aunts quite distinctly, others were names only.

Accordingly, I pieced together some of the information from church records, census information, and the memories of my own uncles and aunts, particularly Paul and Benita Messerli, Robert Messerli, Mary Messerli Klaus, Donald Caspers, Duane and Ann Caspers, Myron Zumbach, my sister Pat Messerli Thieben, Adeling Haigh Reed's daughter Maeola Dean, and Edith Haigh Orr's daughter, Donna Mae Welterlen.

These are my Grandfather's, Tobias Caspers', sisters.

Anna Casper(s) Moenk

On February 1, 1922 Anna Caspers married Menno Moenk in the Saint Peter and Paul Lutheran Church, on the edge of Monticello, Iowa, what is called Castle Grove—the church where her brother, my grandfather Tobe was confirmed and in which Tobe married Anna L. Fahrni in 1920; my own parents were married in the same church in 1944.

Church records show that both Anna and Menno were born in 1898.

Menno Moenk died in 1937.

The death of Menno must have made life very difficult for Anna and her children. Only recently did my Mother reveal that for two years, Anna, her two daughters, Lillian and Grace, and their son Garrett (the elder son, Andrew, was sent to another family), came to live with them, a seemingly beneficial situation given that Anna Fahrni Caspers, my Mother's mother, had also just died.

For my Grandfather it must have seemed that he were trading one Anna for another.

The relationship, however, at least from my Mother's view, was not a pleasant one, with Anna using my Mother and her sister Carol almost as hired help, while buying ribbons and other small trinkets for her own two daughters.

My uncle Don suggests deeper problems: "Anna's case was, well, quite tragic. After her husband Menno's death she had what today we would describe as a mental breakdown, and she spent some time in St. Josephs, an insane asylum in Dubuque. She had that scary kind of look about her that suggested she was still mentally unstable."

"Every lunch for months she cooked potatoes, carrots, and ham," my Mother reported, without needing to remind me that working all afternoon and evening in the fields necessitated heavy meals described as "dinners." "Once in a while my father would bring home a chicken or a piece of beef. But for the rest of the time Anna would keep to the regimen."

Confirming my Mother's recollections, Don also described their supper-time fare: "Every night she put a big black pot in the center of the table filled with what I believe must have been turnips and spices. It was a kind of turnip goulash which she probably kept on low boil for weeks at a time."

One day, my mother recalls, Anna was about to beat her for small infraction, but her brother Edwin picked up a broom and threatened her if she dared to touch her. "He protected me," my mother reminisced.

Eventually, Tobe found another farm for them nearby, and they moved on. Perhaps he had also grown tired of their repetitious diet.

After writing the above, I spoke with my Uncle Duane. Duane was a newborn when Anna came to stay at the Caspers house, and he was only two when she moved out. But he remembered Anna well, since later in his life he was sent to work on her and her sons' farm one summer.

When I suggested to him that his brother and sister had found Anna difficult, Duane responded, "Well she was truly a wonderful woman, but she had such a difficult life."

"Really?" I queried. "You mean because of Menno's death?"

"Most certainly that, but also Menno himself. He was a mean drunk and often beat her brutally. He was also what you might describe as a 'womanizer.'"

"I didn't know that," I said.

"Well, you know how he died?"

"No, I've never been told."

"He was out one night, obviously with another woman. He came home late, driving his car into the yard, with another car just behind him. 'Pop, pop,' two shots! He was dead."

"The husband of the woman he was seeing?"


I think I can now postulate why Anna had a mental breakdown.

Anna died in 1957 in an automobile accident in the West where she was visiting her brother, Herman. Herman and his son were also killed in that accident. Don named the location as somewhere in California, Duane as Portside, Arizona, but I was unable to locate such a place in that state.

Catherine (Katie) Casper(s) Tobiason

Five years after Anna's marriage, Catherine Caspers, the second eldest of my Grandfather's sisters, was married to Michael Tobiason in the same SS Peter and Paul Lutheran church in 1927. Michael and his family (his father, George, a German immigrant), evidently, attended the Wayne Township Evangelical Lutheran Church in the same county.

When I knew her, Katie lived in the town of Monticello, quite near to my Grandfather's house, so I would see her fairly often on visits there.

My Mother remembers her as working for a wealthy family, "rich people, with a nice house." "She worked for the Stolher's (another local Swiss family)," reported my Uncle Don. "They were quite rich. Legend has it that when the Stolher daughter got married they laid a red carpet from the door of the house all the way down to the Congregational Church in the middle of town."

My mother remembers Katie's house as being spotless, the tables all covered with white linen tablecloths. Both my Mother and her Brother also remember that Katie was regularly visited by trucks selling food and other items, and would offer them candy bars and other sweets bought from these traveling peddlers. Duane's wife Ann remembered the trucks: "They were owned my McNast and McNamara and sold powder for lemonade, Jello, little toys, candy bars, and such stuff." "Sometimes she gave us sacks of food when we visited, which would last our family for a week," recalled my Mother.

Lorna also remembers Michael, Katie's husband, as being a "heavy drinker." "One time I crept upstairs and opened the door to a small cupboard; it was filled with liquor bottles!" Don describes him more graphically: "He was an alcoholic. I lived with Katie for a year, and one night I came home to find Mike chasing his wife around the table with a butcher knife. I commanded him to stop or I'd go for the police. He quickly calmed down."

My Uncle Duane confirmed Mike's alcoholic consumption and also a fact my Sister had mentioned, that he was a heavy smoker of cigars.

Katie was one of those German women and men, like my Grandfather, who greeted visitors by taking everything from the refrigerator and cupboards and displaying the food upon the table. "Please eat!" ("Essen! Essen!" I can hear her) was the first thing that she (and my Grandfather) said the moment you entered the house. When we visited with my parents, she always insisted that she should fix us dinner or lunch. We seldom took her up on the offer, but as kids we appreciated the bounty she threatened to set before us.

Later on my visits to Katie I had to remind her each time that I was Lorna's son, whereupon she disappeared for a few moments before returning with a full dish of candy, from which, she insisted, I should select some "treats." It was hard to turn her down, but also difficult to sort through the long strands of hair intertwined with the candy which appeared to have been the same dish offered me the year before.

Yet Katie was so overjoyed by any visit to her that, once, I insisted my Sister join me. I was sure to Pat she seemed like an old witch out of some horror film, Katie's appearance having deteriorated after so many years. But the joy we afforded her, and the perpetual offer to cook up a meal on the spot, always gave me a great sense of pleasure.
I had hardly expected my Sister to remember this Great Aunt, but, much to my surprise, Pat responded: "Grandpa Tobe used to take me all the time to her house. Her husband smoked cigars and she always gave me a cigar box full of little 'treasures.' I used to love to visit her. She was a very loving lady!" I can't imagine when those visits might have occurred; perhaps when I was overseas in 1964. I don't think, in all my visits to Katie, that I ever saw her husband. He died in 1965, when Pat was only 12 years of age. But her description of the woman is right on target. As Duane reiterated, "She was quite a gal."

Duane attended Mike Tobiason's funeral. "Despite his various abuses of himself and Katie, he'd given a lot of money to his church, the Wayne Evangelical Lutheran. So the minister went on and on about what a good and kind man he was." My Uncle Myron leaned over to him and whispered, "I better go check to see who they got in that casket!"

Lena Casper(s) Mardorf

Lena was married in the same church, to Gerhard Mardorf, on February 9, 1928.
The 1930 census suggests that Gerhard and Lena were both born in 1904.

The Mardorfs were important people in the life of their church, related, apparently, to the first pastor of the Castle Grove chapel, Rev. C. Mardorf, who was born in Germany.

I do not remember ever visiting Lena, although I am sure I must have encountered her at Casper family reunions or, from time to time, at my Grandfather's house. My Mother remembered her only as a woman "who had to have everything her sisters had, particularly her younger sister Margaret. If Margaret got a new coat, Lena had to have one too."

They shared brothers, who also seemed to be quite competitive. Accordingly to my Uncle Don, Gerhard's brother Carl was always able to get out of Gerhard how much he paid for hogs, but he never revealed the amount he himself had paid. Was he buying the same pigs at a lower price and selling them for more?

Don lived with Lena and her husband for a summer in 1941. "They were terribly stingy. I always put a quarter in the church offering (my Uncle later became a Methodist minister, his brother Edwin, a Presbyterian one), which they thought was terribly extravagant compared with their dimes and pennies. And yes, Lena was awfully jealous, particularly of her sister."

"Oh, and she always dyed her hair jet black," my mother added.

"They were very proud of their son, Dean, who played the accordion," remembered Don. "And we'd have to listen to that terrible squeeze box night after night. Dean was killed in a car accident, which, even way back then, when no one spoke of such things, was rumored to be related to drugs."

Duane agreed: "Yep, he shot up some heroin or cocaine at the local bar and tried to drive off. I visited him in the hospital. Every bone in his body was broke."

Duane shared with me another family tragedy, the fact that their other son, Frederick, a classmate of his, also died in a car accident, just after Christmas in 1974.

Lena died November 16, 1999.

Margaret Casper(s) Mardorf

Margaret still lives today. She was one of my Mother's favorite aunts, and one of the few matriarchs with whom I've actually spoken as an adult. I wish I could have talked with her more often, but probably have now missed the opportunity.

Margaret Caspers was married in the Saint Peter and Paul Lutheran Church to Carl Mardorf, Gerhard's brother, on January 12, 1929.

It may seem strange that two sisters should marry two brothers, but my Father once explained it away by saying simply "That's what they did in small towns in those days." Two Messerli sisters married two Zumbach brothers as well, so it is apparent that these Swiss and German women preferred to stay in close family settings.

Interestingly, Margaret was confirmed as a Caspers and married as Casper, while Lena was married as a Caspers, a confusion that still exists in my family today. My uncles for example were all confirmed as Casper, my mother as Lorna Mary Caspers.

In the 1930 census Carl was estimated to be born in 1906, Margaret in 1908, which suggests she was 21 at the time of her marriage.

My Uncle Don attended her 101st birthday celebration last year, reporting: "She was laughing as I came in. 'What are you laughing about,' I asked. Margaret asked me, 'Do you remember the name of the Jones County Sherrif?' I did not. 'How he loved to dance. He and I would dance every weekend, with Carl's blessing. What fun we had.'"

I recall as a child hearing a story of a tornado hitting Margaret's and Carl's farm, and my Mother confirmed that Carl died in a storm. Don, so he tells me, visited the farm the day after, reporting that he saw straw driven into the corncrib and a privy up in a pine tree. "Carl was out trying to get in the horses and, according to Margaret, was lifted along with the whole barn up into the sky. He came back down with the barn roof falling atop him, his head alone protruding out from under. Margaret found the strength somehow to lift the entire roof off his body.

"They must have had shoddy embalmers in those days because at the funeral a bit of muddy water dripped out of Carl's mouth. Someone quickly wiped it away."

My Uncle Duane was at the funeral as well, and confirmed the dirty liquid issuing from the corpse's mouth. "You know it wasn't just the roof that killed him, he was drowned. I don't think they even embalmed him."

Margaret had two children, Jane (who married a minister, Ludy Lechner) and a son, Dale, who worked for years at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids before returning to the farm where he was born, dying there in 2007. I recently found a beautiful picture of my Mother and Father's wedding, my Aunt Carol, obviously the bridesmaid, and my Uncle Paul, the groomsman, standing beside them. "But who was the flower girl?" I asked my Mother. "Oh, she was a Mardorf, Jane Mardorf."

After Carl's death, Margaret remarried Alva Stadtmueller, with whom she had a daughter, Rose (Kumpf). My Mother recently mentioned, and Duane agreed, that Alva was a quite lazy man—abusive, as we would describe him today. He made Margaret do all the plowing, combining, and other tractor work. When she was finished she had to come back to the house and cook his supper. I can just imagine that strong-willed woman sitting high on the seat of her Oliver. Duane is quite proud that that tractor still remains in the family, he having purchased it at auction for his son Andy.

I remember visiting Margaret only one time, when I was very young. I have no memory of the occasion, but I do recall the house was full of adults and children, so it must have been a rather grand gathering.

The most memorable event of the evening is that someone—I remember it as another child, but may have been a hired woman or another aunt—cut herself severely in the kitchen with a knife. From my childhood vantage, I recall a lot of blood, and an ambulance being called. But no one has ever been able to confirm these impressions.

For some inexplicable reason—perhaps the weather was severe or Margaret was an incredible host—almost everyone stayed the night: something that had never happened in our family previously! Although the house was a large one, there were simply not enough beds to put everyone up, and a number of us children slept on pallets put out on the porch. I am sure we thought it was great fun!

At my Grandmother's funeral in 1997, Margaret came up to me and, after I reintroduced myself, admitted that something had long been on her mind. All these years, she explained, she had been worried about that night, so long ago, when I had been asked to sleep on the floor. She'd thought about it, so she reported, many a time. "But, you see," she protested, "there just weren't enough beds!" I assured her that absolutely no harm had been done, that as a child I probably thought it was an exciting adventure to sleep on a porch. She seemed somewhat reassured, but still a bit uncertain about that far-away evening. I was and still am astonished to know that such a trivial event had been troubling her these 47 years! I wanted to kiss her for simply confirming my vague, childhood memory.

But why had we stayed over, I wanted to know, forgetting to ask.

My Mother has no memory of the visit.

On January 4th, 2010, having just completed this essay, I called my Mother, who told me that the day before my Uncle Duane had visited, with the news that he had gone to visit Margaret over the weekend, flowers in hand, only to be told she had just died. "She was the last one," sighed my Mother. "Yes, I know," I commiserated, "she was the last of the Great Aunts." And suddenly I felt that the word "great" was not just a statement of relationship, but was an evaluation as well.

Margaret was buried in the same St. Peter and Paul Cemetery which had meant so much to my Casper(s) and Messerli families.

I never knew my maternal Grandmother, who died soon after the birth of my Uncle Duane in 1937. Anna Fahrni, of Swiss ancestry, was the daughter of Fred and Mary (Nieman) Fahrni. Her husband, Tobias, died years later in 1969 and was buried in the same Castle Grove cemetery with Anna, despite a second marriage to a simple German woman, Emma, the Grandmother my siblings and I knew. We children used to joke—although we were terrified by its implications—that if Emma had remained in Germany she'd have been one of Hitler's strongest supporters.

I was one of my Grandfather's pallbearers, and after the burial we were joined by the mourners for a dinner in the SS Peter and Paul Lutheran Church basement.

Evidently Anna had no living sisters, although my Uncle Don recently revealed that there was a sister who died at birth. She did, however, have a cousin who we once visited in South Dakota, Augusta Simonsen.

On a trip in 1957 to South Dakota to visit my Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Joyce, we drove almost to that state's border with Wyoming, where Augusta had a large sheep ranch. In Iowa, where farmers raised pigs, cows, chickens, corn, soybeans, and some other grains, we'd seldom seen a sheep, so we children were amazed by the place.

Augusta's home, in which she now evidently lived alone, the farm tended by a few hired hands, was less a rambling farmhouse than a kind of endless maze of connecting buildings, some, I seem to recall, built out of redwood. The kitchen was enormous, and the dining room held a large, preset table, with a white tablecloth and glistening glassware. My Mother recalls a double staircase.

We stayed overnight, each housed in our own bedroom, and I remember my brother David and I walking from room to room to room, in rapt wonderment. Every room was sparsely appointed with a bed and chair. And there seemed to be dozens of bedrooms to this house!

I remember this relation as being friendly and, I suspect, rather amazed at seeing us. But I recall little else about the experience, and I cannot call up her face.

Anna's closest woman friend, it appears, was Mary Fahrni, the wife of John, Anna's brother. "We visited their house many, many times," notes my Mother, "and Mary and John often came to help with the harvesting and corn husking. She and my mother would cook up big meals for all the farmers and their wives who helped."

"Mary had a lovely living room in which no one was allowed. I never saw another person in it." It reminds me of my own Mother and her repeated warnings that we were not enter that sacred domain.

I knew the aunts of my Father's side better, in part because of the peculiarities of family interrelationships, resulting in the fact that my Grandfather's sisters would appear at family reunions on both my Father's and my Mother's side.

I never knew my Grandfather Messerli, a hardworking farmer, John Peter, after whom my father was named. He died of meningitis in August 1946, about a year before I was born. His wife, Ethel Irene Haigh (born in 1903), was the major influence upon my life, a true matriarch, who, after John died, married Forrest Jones, owner of the local car dealership in Manchester, Iowa. When he died, in turn, she married the town jeweler, Jim Nelson.

I remember attending the funeral of Forrest as a young boy, where I suddenly began to sob uncontrollably. Forrest's daughter by his first marriage was mentally ill, and, in retrospect, it seems that a few of her irreverent comments made during the funeral set me off. Her words not only somehow troubled my young sense of order, but made me comprehend that my Grandfather, the only Grandfather on that side of my family I had known, was not there to hear them.

My beloved Grandmother, of whom I have written elsewhere, was a terror to all her daughter's-in-law, for whom, like many a mother-in-law, would never be good enough for her sons.

My Mother, who lived on the farm with Ethel for more than a year when my Father was in the Air Force in World War II, had an somewhat tense relationship with her, feeling that she had been treated a bit like a hired hand, an emotion that certainly must have been further aggravated by the fact that she and her sister Carol had had to help raise their own brothers after their Mother, Anna, died, and that Lorna had suffered, as I observed earlier, that similar feeling of indenturement with Anna Caspers Moenk.

Recently my Mother described some of her activities on the Messerli farm that might have led to this feeling: "For several weeks, I remember, I had to help haul large rocks from the fields to the front door. I can't recall why we were bringing them there; perhaps Ethel was creating some new stone-paved entrance; but I must say they were very heavy rocks. Every day I also had to bake a cake."

One wonders, in retrospect (see below) about the relationship of Ethel's rocks with her sister Addie's later collection, and a possible connection between another of her sisters, Myrtle's early baking difficulties and my Mother's evident skill.

When she wasn't working on the farm during the summers, my Mother lived with three elderly spinsters while she taught school nearby in a one-room schoolhouse. "My father showed me how to light the fire, and I would go early every morning and warm the place up. The sisters were good women, and I enjoyed my time with them, although I had to spend most of my evenings correcting student papers."

One might also add that my Mother, at the time of her stay with her strong-willed mother-in-law, was still a teenager of 19 years of age who had had no real childhood. Three years later she was a mother, I the new baby.

After the War, my Aunt Carol also went to live for a while with Ethel.

Unlike the Caspers, who were German, the Messerlis, like my Mother's Mother, were Swiss in origin. Indeed my Great Grandfathers, Messerli and Fahrni had been close friends back in Thun, Switzerland, and had come to the United States together to escape the Swiss Constitutional Military Provision of 1874, settling on neighboring farms.

Two of the Messerli sisters of that second generation married into another local Swiss family, the Zumbachs, whose offspring are still today a major agricultural force in Delaware County, Iowa.

Lena Freda Messerli Zumbach

John's older sister, Lena was born on October 3, 1894, and married Albert Zumbach (born 1891) on November 5, 1915. Lena, the daughter of Frederick Messerli and Mary Meyer, was born in the neighboring Jones County, the location of Monticello, the home town in which most of these aunts grew up. They had four sons.

Lena, so my Uncle Bob shared with me, is the one responsible for our lives, for she played cupid to her Brother John and my Grandmother Ethel, inviting them over for dinner to meet one another.

My aunt Mary remembers that, although they lived on a farm, they had a servant, Marie, to help Lena with the cooking and other chores. But my Uncle Myron told me that, in fact, Marie came to live with them as an "orphan kid" of seven or eight. "Lena was awfully nice to her," he added. I am sure she was, but today I think we might question the labor of such a child. In those days the orphanages often sent children out into farm communities to help them better assimilate into family society. But one fears, as playwright John O'Keefe has shown us in his drama Reapers (see My Year 2005), that this practice often exposed these children to hard labor and even sexual abuse. It is clear, moroever, as my Uncle Duane explains, that most children were put to work, often at other farms, as early as age twelve.
My Uncle Bob suggested that Marie Short first came to live with them for a while before transferring to Lena's.
My Grandfather John loved to play cards and, accordingly, numerous card parties were held at Lena's house. On the way to one such party, Mary recalls, it was so foggy that her father had to stand on the car's running board just to see the edge of the road: "That's how important card-playing was."

At the end of these card-playing afternoons and evenings, Lena would serve big meals, with sandwiches, cake, cookies, and other treats.

Lena was also very close to her sister Rose. "We only lived a couple of miles away, and in those days you didn't go very far, so we spent a lot of time at my Aunt Lena's," recalls Myron.

Like most of the Messerli sisters, Lena was a very large woman. She died in 1964, four years after her husband, of a stroke.

Rose Elizabeth Messerli Zumbach

Like the Caspers sisters, Lena and Rose (born 1899) married brothers, Rose (known in our family as Rosie) wedding Louis Zumbach on October 3, 1920.

Mary reports that when her brothers—my father and uncles—visited they put away their children's toys, fearful that they might be broken. Were my father and his brothers Paul, Bob and Lloyd roughhouses?

Nonetheless, when Mary came to visit, Rose would "always buy me a new dress," which seems marvelously generous, unless you know that she was the only granddaughter of 13 male cousins.

Rosie was also a very large woman, at least in girth. In our family she was an object of loving humor for what was known as the "Rosie reach." If, while sitting at table, she wished for something at the other end, she would always say, "Don't bother," as she stood up and leaned forward, grabbing the dish from improbable distances.

According to my Uncle Duane, Rose was a wonderful pie baker, and on some nights when he visited, she would bake a different kind of pie for each of her four sons and their guests. "That's all you'd eat," Duane explained, "Just the pie. But it tasted great!" Not exactly what you'd call a balanced diet.

"When my Brother Louie got back from the War," remembers Myron, "my Mother baked up thirty pies just to make sure he got enough. She also made the best dressing in the world."

Rosie not only baked up a good desserts, says Aunt Benita, but she sometimes ate two desserts at a single sitting, especially when she traveled.

"She was the best Mother in the world," concluded Myron.

Myron married my Mother's sister Carol, which meant that my father's cousin married my Mother's sister, thus linking us to Zumbachs on two sides of our family tree.

My first cousins were, consequently, also my third cousins and, because of the intermarriage of two Messerli sisters to two Zumbach brothers, were probably related in other ways as well. Yet the three of us never got on with the five or six Zumbach siblings, who perpetually taunted us for being "city slickers!" It was all in mock. We agreed: we didn't like the farm one little bit!

My Aunt Carol was the true storyteller-historian of the family, and would have been a remarkable source of history about all of these Aunts, the Caspers, the Messerlis, and perhaps even the Haighs, if she weren't now in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Evidently the Zumbach women, even if they just married into the family, remain attractive to the Messerlis. My Uncle Bob—and I report this as a loving and accepting nephew—is currently "seeing" (as my Mother would put it) Velma Zumbach, formerly married to the now-deceased Louis, Jr.

Alice Messerli Kiebler

Alice was born on March 27, 1906.

My Aunt Mary reports something I had not known, that Aunt Alice had lived with her mother (Mary Meyer Messerli) for the 13 years she dated Gottlieb Kiebler before marrying.

Alice was also a large woman, but in this case she was taller than her other sisters, while Gottlieb was quite short, a little cigar-smoking man with a bushy mustache. I remember that on one visit he jokingly sat on Alice's lap.

Mary tells me that she was the flower girl in their wedding and my Uncle Paul was a groomsman.

Like her sisters, Alice was a good gardener, and whenever they would have the family out for dinner, they would take a tour of her gardens.

Alice was also an excellent cook, and, following suite with her sisters, the dinner invitations were usually followed up with card games. Paul and Benita tell me that they later continued these games with Alice and Gottlieb: "They were sharks when it came to playing cards."

I remember also, and Mary confirmed this, that Alice and Gottlieb, who were childless, had a pet Chihuahua dog, which they treated somewhat like a baby. Duane reports that there was a strict order in that house. "First Alice took a bath, then the dog, and, finally, Gottlieb!"

My Mother tells me that Alice was also something of a packrat, keeping a towering pile of newspapers under their dining table. "When she died, we found her cupboards filled with egg cartoons. But we had still be careful in going through these scraps, for she had hidden money away among the garbage."

Gottlieb was such a fabulous figure in my mind, this little man sitting upon my great aunt's knees, that I stole his name to write several underground pieces about how a German visitor might perceive the American poetry scene: "Gottlieb Casper reporting," imaginatively marrying him to the wrong side of the family (see My Year 2003).

Alice died of ovarian cancer.

These Messerli and Casper(s) aunts were seen by many of the younger generation as "keeping secrets." Both my father and mother once suggested that the Aunts "knew something about the family history that they weren't telling."

That may be so, for they were certainly recognized as women in control. Like characters out of a Gertrude Stein fiction, Anna, Katie, Margaret, Alice, and the two Lenas were hard working Swiss and German farm women who, when compared to the next generation's more suburban sensibilities, appeared to be absolutely fearsome. Women, they showed me, could be powerful beings, especially compared with their silent, unimaginative, and frankly boring, hunkering farmer husbands. Given the often terrifying events I just reported, however, their secrets, if they kept any, must have concerned the previous generations.

My Grandmother Ethel's sisters, on the other hand, were of English origin, and seemed much more domesticated than these other aunts. Their fascination for me was their very names—Adeling, Edith, Ruby, Eva, Florence, Myrtle, and Josie—and their personalities seemed, much like my Grandmother's, to have less in common with the intensity of the German and Swiss women than to a kind of open eccentricity.

Excluding my Grandmother, I remember only four of the eight sisters, Ruby, Florence, Myrtle, and Josie, who all, at one time, lived in the town of Manchester, where, after her husband John's death, my Grandmother resided.

Adeling (Addie) Elizabeth Haigh Reed

Born in 1888, Addie was the "leader," so my Aunt Mary reports, of the Haigh sisters, clearly a outgoing and forceful woman.

Addie's daughter, Maeola, retells the story that one time, when their parents, Joseph and Emiline, were away, their house caught fire. As the eldest, Addie immediately took over, ordering her brothers and sisters each to "carry something of value as they ran outside." Addie's brother Merritt took up a lantern. Each of the sisters chose their favorite object. Fortunately, two "heavy-drinking, poker playing men from next door," characters that Addie had never liked, chopped a hole in the roof of the house and put out the fire quick.

Even as young women, the sisters remained close. In 1941, for example, they gathered for a picnic on their old homestead, now owned by a man named Mr. House. The spot they chose was a favorite of their childhood, a place they had nicknamed "Polly Plat." What happened on the occasion is memorialized in a poem Addie wrote, beginning:

The seven sisters decided to go
Back to the place they used to know
Through the ditches and up the ravine
They went to Polly Plat so green.

Continuing in this doggerel marked by its emphatic end rhymes, Addie describes the sudden and surprising appearance of a young Holstein cow, which "did lend / A bit of commotion / And changed all our notions."

Her sisters Florence and Josie simply ran with "Ruby in red / Two leagues ahead" trying to shoo the cow off. The more sensible sisters Ethel and Eva went to get the owner, Mr. House.

Eventually, they had their picnic:

We had wieners, potatoes,
Olives, cake and tomatoes.
While Addie did litter
The table with fritters.

But the poet goes even further, characterizing a couple of her sisters through their comic-like frenetic motions:

It was funny to me
Why one, two or three,
Had to run round the table
Until they felt able
To sit down at their ease
And think as they pleased.

The poem ends, however, joyfully, with "A blessing" on all their good times. My Uncle Bob summarizes of all the Haigh sisters: "They sure did have a lot of fun."

Maeola remembers their large Christmas dinners, held each year at a different sister's home, with more than twenty people attending.

Later in her life Addie often led her sisters on nature hikes about her Hopkinton farm.

Addie also had her quirks. Her daughter writes: "My Mother was a great believer in turpentine as an antiseptic. Since we did not live near a doctor, it always did the job of healing wounds and scrapes, but it sure did hurt. I had a little dog named Tippy, whose paw had been treated by my Mother with the stuff. After that one time, whenever Tippy smelled turpentine she ran and hid under the kerosene stove to escape."

Beginning in 1948, my Aunt Mary recalled and a newspaper article confirms, Addie collected rocks with the intention of making a vast rock garden. Although she apparently did not ask her friends for specimens, she soon began receiving them from everywhere, and eventually had samples from all over the world, including New Guinea, Japan, North Africa, and the Canary Islands. Her most cherished collection consisted of 14 rocks from the Holy Land (Jericho, Egypt, Galilee, Byblos, Syria, the Dead Sea, Lebanon, and—so a newspaper relates—the Acropolis), rocks brought back by Maeola and her husband from their trip. Who else would might have taken up such an unusual hobby?

Addie reported that her Grandmother had also loved rocks, and she found them a perfect expression of "God's creation." When she was not working with her rocks she studied birds. "Everybody should have a hobby when they are young," Addie insists, "which will be of much interest when they are older."

Addie was clearly a strong-willed woman. My Aunt Benita relates that Addie stayed with them for a month. "She was very disciplined and would drink only one cup of tea each day out of the fear she might become addicted, even though she absolutely loved the stuff."
Addie's son Ray was a Navy man, reported Bob (himself a retired Major General in the Air Force). "He later married a Mexican woman in San Diego, which in those days, as you can imagine, was quite a topic of discussion back in Iowa."

I don't think I ever met Addie, but I certainly wish I had.

Edith Blanch(e) Haigh Orr

Edith Blanch(e) Orr was born on August 28, 1899. On May 10, 1911, she married Edward Orr in Hopkinton, Iowa. Together they had two daughters, Donna Mae Welterlen and June, and two sons, Joseph and Frank.

Edith's daughter, Donna, reiterated how much the sisters enjoyed one another's company, noting that once a month they gathered at lunches, talking and eating. "My mother loved to cook and bake rolls and bread. Everyone who stopped went home with a loaf of bread and some sweet rolls. ...The morning she went to the hospital just before her death she had her kitchen ready for baking the next morning."

Family gossip has it that Ed Orr stopped by my Grandmother's farm one morning and attempted to make a "sexual pass." Ethel told him never to come back and reported the incident to his son Joseph.

Ruby Allen Haigh Richardson

Ruby (born in 1892), so Mary tells me, was one of my Grandmother's favorite sisters, and even as a young woman, Ethel stayed with Ruby to help out with chores.

Between Ethel's second and third marriages, moreover, she spent at least one winter with Ruby and her husband Amos Richardson in Arizona.

Ruby married Amos on June 17, 1914; they had four children, Walter, Richard, Marva, and Betty.

Ruby died in Hopkinton, Iowa, in 1983.

Eva Beatrice Haigh

Eva (born in 1898), who my Aunt Mary notes, "loved wearing black slacks topped with a red blouse," must have been attractive, given the fact that she married four times! Now that I have seen her photograph (see below) I realize she was a true beauty, looking away from the camera—so different from the direct stare of the other sisters—at someone or something out of the picture frame.

Her first husband was John Johnson, with whom she had one son, Howard.
The second was Emmett Powers, of whom little is remembered.

Mary recalls visiting her in a Manchester, Iowa, duplex, where Eva and her then-husband, Fred Fry, lived on one side and Emiline Haigh, her mother, on the other. Fred, a rather sickly man, raised rabbits to be killed and eaten, not a pleasant livelihood in the heart of beef and pork country.

Fred died after the couple moved to Arizona. There Eva met Joe Welson, whom she also married. She died of cancer in Arizona.

Florence Ruth Haigh Sheppard

Florence (born in 1900) married Lloyd Sheppard, a farmer south of Manchester, Iowa.

My Aunt Mary remembers staying with them whenever her parents went to Chicago to sell steers. They also took the Messerli family dog, Elmer, who was a pest to any chicken farmer, for he "sucked eggs." The Sheppard's kept no chickens on their farm.

Lloyd died one day of a heart attack while mowing the yard. Upon discovering his body, Florence let out a scream so loud—it was reported (by whom is more vague)—that it was said it could be heard on the next farm.

After the death, Florence left the farm, moving into Manchester. But her husband's death affected her so deeply that she was never able to regain her composure. Although Ethel took her regularly for therapy in the nearest institution in Independence, one day Florence inexplicably hung herself in her own basement.

Myrtle Beatrice Haigh Sickels

Myrtle was born on April 21, 1904, and married Ora Sickels in 1925. The couple had three children, Harlan, Helen, and Kenneth.

My Mother reports that one time Myrtle baked a cake that, evidently, burned. I presume this must of been when she was quite young, because instead of simply tossing it out, she buried that cake in the back yard. Was it out of embarrassment for having attempted it or not having achieved the proper results?

For a time they kept a Manchester store, their daughter Helen later running the beauty shop near Ethel's home. I recall being sent to the dime store while my grandmother got her hair done at that shop. And I vaguely remember Myrtle; I think for a time she worked as a waitress in a nearby cafe.

Ora died in 1967. Myrtle died of Crohn's disease some years later.

Josie Marie Haigh Lewis

Josie (born in 1908) and her husband Jack Lewis also lived in Manchester, where they had two sons, the youngest of whom, Johnnie, drowned at age 10 in the Maquota River.

I recall a couple of my grandmother's visits with Josie, with whom she had some very strong differences. At one point, after Josie had moved to a trailer park in Cedar Rapids, I remember a visit to her with my Grandmother (I have no understanding of why I invited to join in that trip, since I lived in a suburb of that city. Perhaps I was being returned home via a sisterly visit.) After a short conversation, we left, my Grandmother whispering over her wave of goodbye: "Can you imagine a sister of mine living like that!"

I presume it was the location of her abode, not the condition of her trailer that had provoked my Grandmother's disdain.

My Grandmother was the most interesting woman of these sisters, at least from my viewpoint, that of what I selfishly imagined was her favorite grandson. (At a post-funeral dinner with several of my twenty first cousins, each of them confirmed similar feelings. She had made each of us feel special.)

Let me say simply that she was enormously vital, absolutely filled with an energy that she conveyed to all her grandchildren, particularly to me, since for three years before my brother's birth, I had her to myself.

This vitality, her absolute love of life, stayed with her throughout most of her 94 years of living.

I've written about her elsewhere in these volumes, and I am sure I will speak of her again, so I will not say much here.

Later in her life, Ethel worked at a nursing home at nights. I remember joining her once in her long night shift, during which she was called time and again into various rooms to help patients to the toilets or to urge them into sleep. Some walked the halls with their insomniac fears, crying out or moaning.

Finally, in the early morning, as we walked back to her home, a house in one of the loveliest sections of that charming town of Manchester, Iowa, she nearly howled out:

"Douglas, don't ever let them put me in a place like that!"

In her last years, after she had fallen twice in her own home and had suffered, evidently, an unreported heart attack, that is just the kind of place into which the family put her. All her children were now themselves too old to care for her; my father was beginning his slow death from prostate cancer.

I loved my Grandmother deeply, but I lived far away in California, and had no easy way to visit her, let alone remove her from the fate she had so feared that early morning years before.

I try to remember her instead in her little backyard, weeding out the flower garden, tending to the beautiful roses, hydrangeas, lilies, and other plants she so loved.

I quote her daughter, Mary: "She gave me my love of birds, flowers, and all things of nature. I remember one time, after dark, we walked out into the oat field and laid down on our backs and looked up at the stars. No words were exchanged, just the beauty of it all."

Los Angeles, November 1-3, 2009; November 8, 2009; November 26, 2009; December 3, 2009; December 5-9, 2009; January 1, 2010; January 5, 2010

When I had the idea to write the essay above, I planned only a short piece centered basically on my own admiration for these women's great strength. I had thought of most of these aunts as fairly happy beings and, accordingly, like Tolstoy, presumed there were no significant differences between them with regard to family life. I gradually discovered, however, that many of these great aunts were not at all happy at home, and, as Tolstoy proclaimed, each was unhappy in her own way. Never could I have imagined these seemingly solid Iowa folk as being involved with drugs, family violence, sexual abuse, insanity, suicide, and even murder! With just a few questions addressed over time to my Uncles and Aunts came these mostly loving but sometimes lurid revelations.

Did I sense that something was amiss, even as a young man, given, when I look back at that 1982 poem, my word choices of "panic," "wrists", "nails," "crow-sick" "kill," "grouse," etc.? And there too was the recurring baking of cake.

The second poem in the same volume about the aunts, "Swiss and German Matriarchs" was even more violent, balancing its lyrical passages with the frightening consequences of living:

Swiss and German Matriarchs

a pretty foot must be where
tigers are remembering
the tall avenues of lindens
lazy like a star backwards
against the leaves,
laying out dresses in a silent
distance of fear
to find such luxuriance
in so many bushes.
a minute's long to balance
the preparedness of history,
seducing acquaintances to sit
without screens or spreading blankets
upon beds to sort
their beans from behind
the kind of yellow fog that accompanies
the consumption of morocco books to keep
sharp as nail figures in.

On a trip back to Switzerland to attend a Fahrni family reunion several years ago, my Father and Mother also looked up details of the Messerli family and discovered their Great Grandfather's family homestead. When they returned they also reported having met Fahrni's in Switzerland who had married Messerlis, as well as related Zumbachs, Tobiasons, Zimmermans, and even Caspers. "What were the Caspers doing in Swizterland?" I gasped. "They were there," my father simply repeated. It seemed beyond belief, to me, that the families who had intermarried in Iowa had done the same thing in Switzerland, each without the other's knowledge! It seemed like kind of genetic perversity.

Suddenly, while working on this project, I discovered that in some strange ways these families had played a role also in my personal life. Reading through church records, I supposed that my Aunt Anna's husband Menno Moenk was related to George Moenk, also of that Castle Grove church, a farmer who married the daughter of the wealthy businessman, Anna Balster. The Balster's store, consisting of three buildings in nearby Scotch Grove, stocked hardware and implements, groceries and dry goods, and housed the town Post Office.

I have to presume that the Scotch Grove Balsters were related, in some way, to the Balster family in my hometown of Marion, Iowa. The Marion Balsters owned the city furniture store. As a child, their son, my age, used to wait for me on my way home threatening me and sometimes beating me up.

The Wayne Township and Castle Grove churches were also filled with Poppes; according to church records one Poppe married a Moenk, another a Tobiason, and yet another a Zimmerman. At the Suburban Restaurant in Marion, where I worked summers, one of the Zimmerman granddaughters worked as a waitress. At that same restaurant I also worked alongside the dishwasher Eddie Poppe—a relative to these churchgoing Poppes—who dressed in tight denims and an open white shirt, sporting slicked-back pompadour hair—the very model of a 1950s, early 1960s "greaser." Like the Balster kid, he also often threatened to beat me, but Eddie's throat-holds and crotch-grabs were frankly quite harmless, and to my way of thinking were much more homoerotic than frightening—although he might have attacked me if he'd known that—or, perhaps, introduced me to something I wasn't ready for.

In short, I had had somewhat abusive relationships with the relatives of the same families who married my Great Aunts! The thought of all these unbelievable interconnections continues to haunt me. Yet anyone who has read other volumes of
My Year will recognize that my whole life has contained a series of such connected events.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Speaking in Tongues (on Fran Ross' Oreo)

Fran Ross Oreo (New York: Greyfalcon House, 1974); reprinted with a Foreword by Harryette Mullen (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000)

I recently reread Fran Ross's wonderful satire, Oreo, and enjoyed it even more than my original encounter. I first heard about this title at the Page Mothers Conference at the University of California, San Diego, in March of 1999, organized by Fanny Howe and Rae Armantrout. There Harryette Mullen spoke of the book which she had accidently come upon, noting, as she does in the Foreword to this new printing, that the work failed to "find its audience,"

possibly because in the process of commingling two ghettoized
vernaculars, African American and Yiddish, the novel also draws
on material that both black and Jewish readers might find of-
fensive, perplexing, or incomprehensible. Ross's double-edged
satire includes a Jewish immigrant who retains a voodoo con-
sultant Dr. Macumba; a reverse-discrimination tale of an all-
black suburb where a local ordinance is selectively enforced to
keep to keep white people from moving into the neighborhood;
a black radio producer's script of an advertisement for Passover
TV dinners; ...and a fight in which Oreo beats a predatory pimp
to a pulp while wearing only a pair of sandals, a brassiere, and a

Moreover, the stereotypes of racial jokes abound. "Dialects, bilingual and ethnic humor, inside jokes, neologisms, verbal quirks, and linguistic oddities" occur at regular intervals throughout the work. One might add that heroine's brother sings his communications in a private language, while her mother transforms her difficulties into algebraic formulas. The book is not only filled with formulas, recipes, lists, questionnaires and riddles, but it comically parallels the adventures of Theseus, his voyage to the underground, and his encounters with the Amazons, Phaedra, Hippolytus, Peretithous, Helen, and the Minotaur. Indeed Ross's work is not a novel, but a vast picaresque of the American landscape, with Athens transformed into New York.

It sounded like the perfect kind of book for Sun & Moon or Green Integer, and soon after, I found a copy of the original and devoured it; discovering the book's editor was listed in the New York telephone directory, I began the slower process of trying to obtain the rights; unknown to me, Harryette had already been in touch with Northeastern University Press, and before I was even able to make a formal offer, the book was published in their Library of Black Literature, an appropriate place.

I cannot believe, however, that Oreo has yet found a wide readership, ten years later. Ross' bawdy take on American life features a half Black, half Jewish heroine who like a comic-book character successfully overcomes thousands of obstacles—lack of money, prejudice and hatred, sexism and abuse, and just plain ignorance—that face her upon her voyage to discover her identity. Oreo's greatest defense is what she calls WIT (the Way of the Interstitial Thrust), on the surface of the story a kind of mix of jiu-jitsu, karate, kung-fun and numerous other body moves, but in the work's poetic truth, represents her ability to speak, parody, imitate, twist, mock, and translate almost any form of language she encounters. And it is this verbal wit that stands at the center of this book.

Indeed, Ross' jumps, splices, cuts, fissures, and all out leaps of language might remind one the slightly later experiments of "language" writing. Like that poetry, the reader has sometimes to make his or her own associations and choices of meaning in order to successfully maneuver Ross' pages. But the experience is always worth the trip:

Oreo on the subway

She was too preoccupied to observe noses, mouths, and shoes and award prizes.
She did overhear someone say impatiently, "No, no, Mondrian's the lines, the
boxes. Modigliani's the long necks."
And: "She a Jew's poker. Take care the sinnygoge fo' 'em on Sat'd'ys."
This gave her an idea whose ramifications she considered during the ride.
Distractedly, she doodled on her clue list. Her basic doodles were silhouettes
of men facing left and five-lobed leaves. Her subconscious view of her father as
a mystery man? A pointless, quinquefoliolate gesture to the Star of David? No.
Silhouettes and leaves were what she drew best. Next to her profiles and palmates,
she made a line of scythelike question marks. Next to that, she sketched an aerial
view of a cloverleaf highway, her gunmetal-gray divisions making a cloisonné of
the ground. Then with offhand but decisive sweeps, she crossed "Kicks,"
"Pretzel," "Fitting," "Down by the river," and "Temple" off her list.

This event occurs after Oreo has described her hilarious life in Philadelphia for half the book and gone off to find her father, bedding down for the night in Central Park near a family of dog food-eating midgets, and battling it out with a pissed-off pimp and his long-hung monster sex fiend, Kirk.

The list she refers to above are some of the clues her father has given her to find him, and in her quirky searches, she somewhat reminds one of a Paul Auster-like detective, settling on chance. Ultimately she encounters him briefly just before his accidental death (an accident which she and a dog precipitates); in that short meeting, moreover, she discovers he has left something for her, the clue of which is hidden in one of her father's books.

Daring fate, Oreo sneaks back into his house, pretending to be a caretaker for his current wife's children. There she discovers the clue, unravels it, and collects her heritage: her father's sperm kept in a nearby clinic.

Sperm? This woman of wit has used her abilities to speak in tongues not only to overcome obstacles but, like some amazon warrior, has been able to wrest reproduction from male dominance; by book's end, she is in control of the future, not only her own future but the possible future of others as she ponders whether to sell her inheritance to her bigoted Jewish grandfather or to destroy the stuff.

The chapter closes with her whispering to herself: Nemo me impune lacessit (No one attacks me with impunity). Like Theseus, Oreo has finally won her throne, becoming the King-Queen of her empire. Seldom have we witnessed such a powerful figure in American fiction, and none them has been as funny.

Los Angeles, February 12, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Creating the Impossible (on Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev)

Foma shot with an arrow in "The Raid"

Boriska treasuring his bell

Andrei Rublev comforting the bellcaster

One of Rublev's great icons

Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (director) Andrei Rublev / 1966 / I saw the film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 30, 2010

Like the iconic images of the artist upon which this movie focuses, Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is less a story or even a series of stories than it is a panorama of stopped moments in time. Like the great films of director Sergei Parajanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors two years earlier Sayat Nova of 1968, Andrei Rublev is less a film about time than it is a series of emblematic images, scenes that in their slow resolution of beauty and horror reveal a passionate and transformative experience that has little do with story or plot. And in that sense, nearly all of Tarkovsky's works from this film forward tell themselves in formal cinematic patterns instead of narrative space.

Tarkovsky divides his film into 9 parts: A "Prologue" seven moments in time, followed by an Epilogue.

The Jester, Summer 1400
Theophanes the Greek, Summer-Winter-Spring-Summer 1405-1406
The Holiday, 1408
The Last Judgement, Summer 1408
The Raid, Autumn 1408
The Silence, Winter 1412
The Bell, Spring-Summer-Winter-Spring 1423-1424

Already in the prologue Tarkovsky sets up a kind of abbreviated pattern for the rest of the film. Here Yefim, a creator on the run, is chased by a mob as he daringly jumps into his balloon, a hide-bound, medieval version of a hot air balloon. Amazingly, with Yefim hanging by the ropes, the balloon takes him up and away, revealing an entirely new perspective of the universe, as the frustrated mob below menacingly lift their fists into space. Yet, as in numerous occasions throughout this film, the miraculous creation is doomed from the start; Yefim and his balloon quickly come crashing to earth, sealing, it appears, his doom.

In "The Jester," Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and his fellow monks, Danil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) leave their Andronikov Monastery on a search of work. Forced by heavy rains to seek shelter in a barn, the three encounter a surly crowd being rudely entertained by a jester, who mocks not only the approaching monks but all others of social position and power, including the Boyars, members of a social class similar to England's knights. While Danil and Andrei watch the bawdy show, the self-righteous Kirill, we later discover, secretly sneaks away to report the Jester. Soon after a group of soldiers appear, beating the Jester and arresting him.

Here we see another kind of creator being punished for his art. Through this enactment, moreover, we begin to perceive the harsh conditions of those who must suffer the powerful and rich. There is clearly little room for even a joyous mockery of values in this unjust society.

"Theophanes the Greek" explores the life of the prominent master of icons. Visiting Theophanes, Kirill is surprised to find the artist at a complete standstill, all of his apprentices having abandoned him to watch a public torture and execution of a criminal. To his surprise and delight, Theophanes offers him a position to become his assistant in the decoration of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Kirill pretends to resist, but finally accepts the offer if Theophanes will come to the Andronkov Monastery and offer him the position in front of the other monks.

When the time comes, Theophanes instead sends a messenger, asking Andrei Rublev to be his assistant. Danil is angry and refuses to join his friend in the journey, but later relents and wishes Rublev well. Kirill, furious about the transition of events, not only hurls accusations at Andrei but verbally attacks all his fellow monks, leaving the monastery forever. Andrei has no choice but to take along a slightly oafish boy, Foma, as his assistant. Andrei realizes now that even joy can bring forth anger, jealousy, and loneliness, for it is clear from his conversation with Kirill that in the past the two have been deeply in love, with Andrei admitting that he has seen the world through Kirill's eyes.

"The Holiday" reveals another side of the highly Christian Russian world in which Andrei inhabits. On a night-time stroll Andrei encounters a community of pagan worshipers celebrating rituals of sensuality and lust. The celebrants run naked through the forest and fornicate openly on the beach.

As a voyeur to the festivities, Andrei is caught by a group of men, tied to a cross, and threatened with downing. A young naked woman comes forward and frees him. As the sun rises a group of soldiers, clearly Christian, begin to attack the pagans with the intent, apparently, of killing them. The young woman escapes by swimming the river where Andrei and his fellow men are gathered in a boat. They force the young Foma to look away as the naked pagans are rounded up.

Again a force of possible creation has been thwarted. Even a celebration of nature and the sexual body is dangerous in this highly divided and fragile world through which Andrei has silently passed.
Indeed what Andrei has witnessed in the various events of the film so far comes to influence his early statement of values in "The Last Judgment." Here Andrei and Danil have found an excellent job, the decoration of a church in Vladimir, but their work is not progressing, as Andrei, somewhat in doubt, but gradually out of principle, refuses to paint the topic he has been assigned. The horror of the subject appalls him, as he recognizes the theme as being another way that those in power terrify the common folk.

A young girl, a holy fool, enters the church, peeing at its entrance, desecrating the spot; yet her simplemindedness and innocence allows Andrei to suggest the painting of a feast instead of a punishment. We never see him put a brush to paint, nor paint to wall, for it is not the act that matters but the significance of thought. Once again, creativity has been squelched by those in authority. But at least we now have a hero who may overcome the obstacles he may meet.

"The Raid," a series of absolutely horrifying images of rape, torture, and murder, seem almost to wipe out any possibility of creativity and hope. While the Grand Prince is away in Lithuania, his jealous brother, (paralleling Kirill's jealousy of Andrei) has joined forces with the Tartars. Their invasion of Vladimir, replete with cows set afire, falling horses, and dozens of humans speared, knifed, and quartered simply for the sport of it, presents visually the world that Andrei had refused to paint. It is, in short, a hell on earth. As Durochka is taken away by a Russian to be raped, Andrei takes an ax to the perpetrator. In the end of this slaughter only he had the now-mad girl have survived. Having been transformed from a spiritual being into a murderer, Andrei gives up any possibility of creation, abandoning both his art and his voice to the brutal world.

"The Silence" is just that, a long emptiness that has now settled over the Andronikov Monastery for four years and will continue to define Andre's world for twelve more. It is a cold winter and the monks have little to eat. Old and physically destroyed, Kirill returns, asking to be taken in. He is finally accepted, but only if he will copy the scriptures fifteen times before his death.

But even Andrei's silence cannot help. He has kept Durochka with him. But when Tartars stop at the monastery for a water break, their leader carries her away to be his eighth wife. The passive monks, including Andrei, can do nothing to help, and the idiot child is delighted by the act; now she shall eat and live—if they let her—an exciting life. For Andrei, however, it represents simply another failure; he cannot even protect the innocent.

The final set of scenes is perhaps the most profound. Men are seeking a bellmaker for a new cathedral being built by their prince; the boy they find at the noted bellcaster's hut tells them his father has died along with the rest of his family. The only other bellmaker is near death. They turn to go, afraid of the consequences of having been unable to find a craftsman. The young boy, Boriska, however quickly tells them that he can cast a bell, that his father has told him the secret upon his death bed.

The men are doubtful but have little choice, and take him away with them. Now Boriska is caught up something vast; he must find a location, the right clay to use, must dig a pit, put up molds, negotiate with the Prince and other wealthy figures for the correct mix of silver, melt the metals, and pour them into the molds. Nearly night and day, the young worker supervises and works without stop. Will the clay hold, will the bell, if it survives, actually ring or remain mute? Boriska knows that if he fails it will surely mean his death. As he quietly observed the actions of the pagans, Andrei silently watches.

After months of this exhausting work, the furnaces are fueled and released into the mold. When it cools, the clay is chipped away. Now they must haul it, through an intricate series of ropes, across the stream and up into the half-constructed tower. Hundreds of men work against time, as the nobles gather to celebrate the bell's completion, many of them certain that such a clumsy child cannot possibly have accomplished the task. So frightened is Boriska that he can hardly participate, as he is ordered to come forward as everyone waits in anticipation.

The clapper is pulled, pulled in the other direction, returned, and pulled again. Finally, the bell rings out a somewhat deep, sonorous, clang. All are overjoyed. The villagers applaud, the nobles smile and turn away to continue their celebrations in the castle.

Boriska is seen in this long-shot panorama walking alone into the distance. Suddenly he falls into a puddle of muddy water as Andrei passes. We observe the child weeping uncontrollably. Andrei goes to him, holding Boriska's head to his chest. The tears continue. "I lied," admits the child. His father told him nothing, left him ignorance:"the skinflint," cries the young man. The bell has come into existence, clearly, only out of the boy's innate talent and faith. He has created the impossible.

Breaking his long silence, Andrei invites the boy to join him: "Come with me. You'll cast bells. I'll paint icons." Art may, after all, survive.

In a final epilogue, Tarkovsky transforms the screen into color and gradually, in an almost abstract tracing of Rublev's images, shows us what resulted from that coupling, an incomparable visual splendor.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2010