Saturday, March 28, 2020

On Slum Gully and Calypso’s Island: Memories of Dad Six Years Later

Dad sitting out  on  the patio, reading in Thomasville,  Ga. 
An old farm house. 
"Calypso's Island, Departure of Ulysses, or Farewell to Calypso Drawing Date 1848-1849 Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)"


Ariel's song.
John Waterhouse, Miranda - The Tempest, 1916

Dad and I did a lot of cooking together, particularly after my brothers and mom moved out, our home dwindling from five to two in a one-year period between 1984 an 1985.
John left for college in St Paul, Will for prep school in Atlanta, and Mom for her PhD program at Bryn Mawr.

Just the two of us - Dad and I - on our own trying to make due.
We cooked steaks and chicken, gumbo and a lot of the remains.
Once a week, Dad would pull everything left in the refrigerator into a stew he learned about in the Army.

“Slum Gully” he smiled with a twinkle, selling the leftovers like a used car salesman.

Slum Gully?

Says Websters:
“The word’s etymology doesn’t do it any favors: "slumgullion" is believed to be derived from "slum," an old word for "slime," and "gullion," an English dialectical term for "mud" or "cesspool." Most of the earliest recorded usages of "slumgullion," such as in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872)...”

Mud is probably the appropriate word, as was a cesspool.
That's where his mind went.
But I always liked it.
Food to feed an army, Dad added just the right amount of spice for this gumbo of left-overs to take a life of their own in an alchemy of flavors and memories,
Dad conjuring that magic,
hoping to convert the leftovers into an elixir.
Sometimes it worked.

I can recall a lifetime of movies, My Cousin Vinny, True Romance,
Joshua Then and Now, Out of Africa.
A study full of poetry and existential philosophy, books and journals.
Now they sit in my office, with his old Pete Seeger records,
marked up books by William Butler Yeats, a volume of
Robertson Davies speeches,
“For Ben, who wants to write, Enjoy, Dad, Dallas, 1989,” Dad wrote on the inside of my copy.
I flip to the essay on “Jung and Theater."
“Mann gives us a Hero and a shadow, and it’s the task of the Shadow to do the evil deed which the hero desires, but does not like to contemplate,” writes Davies.
Dad loved the theater, bridging that space between inner thoughts and public confessions, inner realms and external lives, through the cesspools of our minds.
He knew there was gold in that encounter between lives and dreams, in that living theater.
“The theater could be and often is at its best, a place where an audience meets to experience one of the great dreams of the tribe,” writes Davies.

“Below the threshold of consciousness, everything was seething with life,” writes Jung, seemingly inviting us into his dream grotto.

So what are the dreams of our tribe?

Dad wanted to take us there, chatting about the Tempest and  Howl,
recalling trips to the Globe Theater with Coz, chatting with everyone.
His favorite play The Tempest.

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

He spent his life trying not to be afraid of that island of noises, looking for it to open, and show it riches.
Sometimes he was, we all are.
At his best he tried to understand the dreams moving through him, the voices in his head
that pulled him from work, that caused his nervous breakdowns, sending him back to the farmhouse in Bridgeboro, the heart disease nearly killed him in 1974.  
Throughout the summer of 1989, he tried to give a Jungian reading to the
images of transformation and magic in Ariel's song in The Tempest

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong
Hark! now I hear them,—Ding-dong, bell.”

Dad left six years ago,
and I'm still not sure about the "sea change"
he went through,
certainly “something rich and strange.”
None of us really know,
bouncing between Beat poetry and corporate law,
Jungian analysis and seminary in Chicago.

I collected a few of his old journals.
Almost incomprehensible, his writing shifted over the years, drifting from
the mundane to larger questions about being here.

“I must get my record player repaired,” he writes on the first of May 1961, while at Fort Benning, Georgia, Ga, in between his years at Harvard and hitchhiking to San Francisco to be a beat poet, and back, between the 50's and '60's. Mostly things to do, the journals occasionally expose larger ideas about living and hoping, as the next line suggests:

“Should begin reading in order to gain perspective enough to begin writing again.”
Lists of:
“Books to schedule
1.      Schrodinger What  is Life?
2.      Dostoesvski – Notes from the Underground.
3.      Modiglaini Man & Myth
4.      Neitsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
5.      Russell - Outline of Philosophy.
6.      Dickenson – Selected Poems.
7.      Schlesinger Crisis of the Old Order.
List of books is too heavy on essay, needs beefing up from literature.
1.      POEMS, Plays, Novels 2.      Shakespeare from Stan.”

A few check marks, by books he presumably got to,
Whatever else he did,
reading them would be his life’s work.
On the 15th of May, 1961, Dad writes:
“Reading coming along well, completed
Notes from Underground”
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who famously agonized from his basement, contemplating revenge,
a bump for a bump, plotted and planned for page after page.
“I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”
“The book put me in something of a tailspin for a few days,” Dad confesses, without explaining why. God we all knew his existential tailspins.
“Placed my thoughts back on the forbidden traces of life:
Where
How
Why”

Over the next five decades, he never quite stopped reading enough to
“gain perspective enough to begin writing again.”
Did he ever really write in the first place.
A cabinet of his old papers thrown into the trash in Dallas, its hard to know.
Some of the journals are readable, many are not.
But he did keep wondering where, why, and how.
Over time, the list of things he wanted to do,
the vocations he entertained became as large as the list of books he hoped to read:
lawyer, professor, army lieutenant, Jungian analyst, philosopher.
He took trips around the world, without tracing a step on paper.
Completed officer’s candidate school, undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard and Princeton. Was fired as a professor and lawyer, suffered physically and emotionally;
conscious is a sickness,” after all; Dostoyevsky’s point always troubled him.

By 1979, we moved to Dallas and Dad started writing again, in his nights off from his legal practice. Dad was becoming more and more of that character from the Dostoyevsky novel.
A notebook from 1980, begins with the words:

“Tobacco Smoke An Odyssey.”

The first poem is titled,
“On Calypso’s Island.”
Desire and regret, disappointment and existential angst run through this poem named after Calypso, the mythic nymph, who lived on the island of Ogygia.
Trapped in his life, Dad begins:

“I was hungry.
And thought of death
I felt a destination of pleasure
In things
In broken
In the content of poetry
In my cigar
In the arid smoke that would eventually kill me

The daily search for meaning
… left me stale and bored.

God was not in …
the analysts office
In the ideograms of Pound

Forty three years old
Grasping for it all
Wondering if my sons chatter would satisfy.

Forty three years old
And everyone dark mood
Feel my reality and having it not be enough

I hear a child’s indoor dissatisfaction
with the world as it is
I hear a mother’s efforts to satisfy
Till the child sleeps
I hear Locatelli.
I pull on my cigar.
And long for family
And wonder why I fear oblivion.”

Why fear oblivion?
Over the years the fear subsided.
I remember him in that study, his cigar smoke filling the room, chatting with any of us
who would drop by.
"You ever think about death?" he asked John's friend Ken,
in between his legal practice, drafting those poems, thinking about where he had been,
the shadow,
the evil deed which the hero desires, but does not like to contemplate,
wondering about Calypso’s Island.
The name of the poems suggests a road, where Odysseus meets the nymph.
“Calypso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back,”
says Odysseus, who stayed on her island for the next seven years.
“deep in her arching caverns…”
Wanting to be there, diverted detained, intrigued, hoping, lost, separated from his family, a part of something else, something larger, and wanting to get away, back to where he belonged,
“nothing is as sweet as a man's own country…”
Yet, somehow he felt stuck on his island. 

Pulled between the road and home,
Between glory and what had become of his life,
Between where he though he needed to be and was.

Of his list from May 1961,
What is Life,Schrodinger’s tome was not checked.
“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. ...”
Somehow I imagine Dad did know Schrodinger’s words.
He certainly acted on them.
“If a man never contradicts himself, the reason must be that 
he virtually never says anything at all,”
writes Schrodinger.
Dad loved Whitman and contradicted himself year after year.
Look at the world, he’d say over and over.
You’ll find people who are ontologically challenged, unable or unwilling to ask why or how,
wondering what it meant to be aware of a leaf of grass
Thinking about the nature of being here
asking and asking and asking.
Reading as much as he could,
recalling running in Troy,
reading poems on a beach in California,
taking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico,
the farm in Bridgeboro, Georgia,
the border towns in Mexico,
the steel drums outside Café du Monde in New Orleans,
the roads that go on forever in Texas,
studying Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology in Chicago.
“Being human means asking the questions of one's own being and living under the impact of the answers given to this question. And, conversely, being human means receiving answers to the questions of one's own being and asking questions under the impact of the answers ...”
Dad finally got to see that island inside himself, a mystery he was ever endeavoring to understand.
“The being of God is being-itself."
Leaving notes and clues, journals and mysteries to keep me guessing for a lifetime,
With few answers for what the sea change must have been like for him on Calypso’s Island.


An officer ... dreaming of... something in 1961. 

Chatting with friends, feeling beat. 

On the road. 

 Calypso's Island - by Herbert Draper



  

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